Au programme des agrégations de Lettres en 2020: Zadig, CandideL’Ingénu

Les ‘contes philosophiques’ de Voltaire sont aujourd’hui la partie émergée d’un iceberg aux multiples facettes. D’abord poète, mondain, tragique et épique, Voltaire a beaucoup écrit, dans tous les genres. Ses œuvres complètes totaliseront deux cents volumes dans la nouvelle édition qu’achève en ce moment la Voltaire Foundation à Oxford. La lecture de ses contes nécessite, pour qui veut en saisir toute la portée littéraire, historique et philosophique, une lecture approfondie d’autres écrits du philosophe. Il faut notamment relire l’ensemble du corpus romanesque, pour saisir les échos, les continuités et les évolutions entre les contes de jeunesse, qu’ils soient en vers ou déjà en prose, et les contes au programme de l’agrégation. La production théâtrale, elle aussi, offre des perspectives éclairantes sur l’œuvre narrative, que l’on songe à la veine orientale de plusieurs de ses tragédies, ou bien à certaines thématiques de ses comédies, liées à la condition féminine que l’on retrouve dans les contes. La philosophie personnelle de Voltaire, son ethos, sa morale et ses conceptions esthétiques sont exprimés dans nombre de poèmes, le Temple du goût, Le Mondain ou encore ses épîtres. Bien entendu, et c’est peut-être le plus important, les enjeux des contes ne peuvent être saisis sans une relecture des grands textes philosophiques et militants de Voltaire. Enfin, il est aussi utile et intéressant de se référer aux écrits autobiographiques du philosophe, ainsi qu’à sa correspondance, qui rassemble aujourd’hui près de vingt mille lettres.

Zadig, gravure de Monnet et Dambrun

‘L’ange cria [à Zadig] du haut des airs: prends ton chemin vers Babylone.’ Gravure de Monnet et Dambrun, dans Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), t.1. Image BnF/Gallica.

Si les trois contes mis au programme de l’agrégation à la prochaine session sont les plus célèbres de toute la production voltairienne, c’est qu’ils ont su émouvoir et faire réfléchir des générations de lecteurs. Elaborés sur une vingtaine d’années, ces contes s’inscrivent chacun à une étape décisive de la trajectoire de Voltaire. Zadig (1748), Candide (1759) et L’Ingénu (1767) ont popularisé l’image d’un Voltaire conteur, volontiers railleur, préoccupé par les maux de notre monde, en un mot universel. Qu’on les nomme ‘récits’ ou ‘contes philosophiques’, ces ‘fictions pensantes’ (selon l’expression de Franck Salaün, Besoin de fiction, Paris, 2010) mettent en scène les aventures terrestres de trois jeunes garçons, originaires de Mésopotamie, d’Allemagne et du Canada, parcourant le monde sur un mode initiatique, goûtant l’amour et tâtant de la prison, découvrant les beautés et les contradictions des sociétés humaines. Nos héros se forgent ainsi, au contact de ces réalités, une expérience qui leur permet de construire une pensée critique.

Ces dispositifs romanesques, qui jouent du topos du manuscrit trouvé, sont avant tout didactiques. Ils participent des Lumières militantes. Voltaire veut former une jeunesse trop souvent inconsciente: ‘Nous l’avons déjà dit ailleurs, et nous le répétons: pourquoi ? Parce que les jeunes Welches, pour l’édification de qui nous écrivons, lisent en courant, et oublient ce qu’ils lisent’ (note de Voltaire dans l’article ‘Ventres paresseux’ des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie). Le propos des contes n’est pas neuf. Ces récits participent, grâce à une formule littéraire inédite, du combat de Voltaire contre ‘l’Infâme’, mettant en jeu les préjugés de son temps et dénonçant tour à tour le fanatisme religieux, la violence, l’exploitation des hommes et des femmes, l’obscurantisme, la métaphysique lénifiante, le dogmatisme pédant et la suffisance des puissants. L’Ancien régime de la pensée, de l’organisation sociale et du pouvoir politique sont ainsi vilipendés, en ce qu’ils produisent des injustices sans nombre que les personnages mis en scène découvrent avec naïveté et effroi.

Candide, gravure de Monnet et Deny

‘M. le baron de Thunder-ten-tronckh passa auprès du paravent, et, voyant cette cause et cet effet, chassa Candide du château à grands coups de pied dans le derrière.’ Gravure de Monnet et Deny, dans Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), t.2. Image BnF/Gallica.

Comment Voltaire est-il parvenu à mettre au point cette recette littéraire appelée à une grande fortune et si indissociablement liée à son nom ? Ne cessant, tout au long de sa carrière, de réfléchir à son art poétique, il a formulé à plusieurs endroits les enjeux théoriques de son écriture. Pour être efficace, le conte voltairien doit être ‘très court et un peu salé’ (lettre de Voltaire à Paul Claude Moultou, 5 janvier 1763). Ces petites ‘coïonneries’, comme les appelait volontiers le philosophe, sont des entités narratives reposant sur le récit d’aventures de fiction, mêlées de considérations sur la marche du monde, d’indications référentielles et d’idées facilement reconnaissables. Un riche arrière-plan historique, politique et religieux est constamment mis en perspective dans les contes, dont les sources documentaires sont d’une grande variété. Surtout, le récit est parodique, et joue constamment d’un intertexte multiple, à tel point qu’on a pu parler, à propos de Candide, d’une ‘encyclopédie du roman’. Les courants de pensée avec lesquels les récits dialoguent sans cesse, de façon critique et parodique, ne sont pas moins complexes à saisir. Voltaire passe ainsi en revue nombre de systèmes philosophiques, pour aboutir à une conclusion qui chasse toute prétention à une explication générale du monde. La véritable sagesse, pour Zadig, pour Candide ou pour l’Ingénu consiste surtout à se méfier des interprétations simplistes, invitant ainsi le lecteur à se forger plutôt la conviction des limites de notre savoir, seule forme de sagesse et de morale.

L'Ingénu, gravure de Monnet et Deny

‘Mon cher neveu, dit tendrement le prieur [à l’Ingénu], ce n’est pas ainsi qu’on baptise en Basse-Bretagne’. Gravure de Monnet et Deny, dans Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), t.2. Image BnF/Gallica.

Les composantes de la fiction, schéma initiatique du conte, motif du voyage, rencontres, dialogues, discours, intertexte et métafiction, participent d’une intention globale: figurer un processus de prise de conscience politique. C’est en cela que la fiction s’inscrit dans le projet des Lumières. Le roman d’apprentissage met en scène une initiation: l’évolution psychologique du héros, née de la confrontation avec de nouvelles réalités sociologiques, culturelles, politiques, génère une remise en question, un questionnement des valeurs et des modèles connus. Le motif du voyage, du déplacement, permet la découverte d’un monde inconnu, présentant de nouveaux modes de fonctionnement (l’Egypte, l’Eldorado ou la France). Le réalisme géographique, culturel, sociologique donne lieu à des tableaux descriptifs: par ces descriptions, le narrateur propose au lecteur un processus critique, mettant en lumière les absurdités, les failles, les excès de ce que les personnages observent. Les rencontres avec d’autres personnages sont des moments de confrontation avec l’autre. L’expérience de l’altérité permet une prise de conscience de la différence de pensée, de valeurs, de culture et la mise à distance, pour les personnages mais aussi pour le lecteur, de ses propres certitudes. Certes, les trois fictions au programme présentent des points communs, qui permettent de les aborder conjointement – le récit initiatique est mis au service d’une intention critique, le romanesque s’allie au questionnement moral et philosophique, la fantaisie et l’humour confèrent une dimension parodique à l’intrigue sentimentale et au récit d’aventure –, mais sur d’autres plans, ces trois contes diffèrent sensiblement, et manifestent l’évolution de la pensée de l’auteur.

On ne peut donc que se réjouir de voir les récits les plus célèbres de Voltaire au programme des agrégations de Lettres. Jouant sur le rire, introduisant un jeu dans la pensée, suspendant le jugement, ils permettent l’exercice de la réflexion. Traduits, édités, illustrés, lus, étudiés, commentés, imités, adaptés dans le monde entier, ces trois contes offrent aujourd’hui aux agrégatifs l’occasion d’entrer dans l’atelier du philosophe pour analyser ces chefs d’œuvres dont la verve et l’humour sont une fête pour l’intelligence. La poétique voltairienne, qui convoque et associe de multiples formes littéraires, est un hymne à la liberté, celle de l’écrivain et celle du lecteur. Puissent les agrégatifs faire leur cette liberté, et la transmettre un jour à leurs élèves !

– Linda Gil
(Université Paul-Valéry de Montpellier, Institut de recherche sur la Renaissance, l’âge Classique et les Lumières)

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).

Voltaire among the popes

The Avignon festival: July 2019

Walking through Urban V’s orchard-garden in the shadow of the Palais des Papes, I didn’t expect to find the faces of Voltaire and Madame Du Châtelet fluttering to the ground on a publicity flier. But the ‘Avignon off’ (the French equivalent of the Edinburgh Fringe with sun) is full of unlikely spectacles. Emilie du Châtelet et Voltaire avant Beauvoir et Sartre was one of them. In the tiny salle of the Théâtre de la Carreterie, author/performer Katell Grabowska interspersed readings from letters in the Voltaire Correspondence with song and narrative, in a laudable attempt to celebrate Madame Du Châtelet as a mathematician and Newton’s translator. (Voltaire, de Beauvoir and Sartre were in attendance only to sex up the title.) It might have worked. Grabowska had done her homework well and the music was lively. But theatricality was another matter. Text dominated performance, leaving any non-Voltairean bemused by a zigzag timeline, bewildered by a catalogue of mysterious pop-up characters – Thiriot, d’Argental, Algarotti – and alas! far from bewitched by a show which needed the sparkle of Émilie’s knuckleduster diamonds to give it some pizzazz.

Not so the Troupuscule Theatre’s version of Candide. Their ‘road-movie’ musical was aimed at a school-age audience and performed at 11 a.m. in the unpromising surroundings of the Préau (recreation space) in the Collège de la Salle, just inside the city ramparts. But as spectators took their seats, they were exuberantly welcomed and plied with flutes of fizz. Yes, really – it was Cunégonde’s birthday! Joie de vivre was the keynote of the show, but clever staging, inspired by seventeenth-century street theatre, hinted (like the conte itself) at the darkness beyond the rocambolesque. Candide’s naked back was painted with the stripes of flogging, and as he littered the stage with corpses (who promptly jumped up and rummaged for their hats), the clashing of swords still rang in our ears. The cast played it for laughs and were rewarded by gleeful squealing from their young spectators, but the underlying message of the conte was omnipresent.

Of the three Voltairean spectacles, however, it was the Odyssée Theatre’s adaptation of L’Ingénu as a one-man show which stole the limelight. Jean-Christophe Barbaud, the metteur en scène, and Thomas Willaime, who performed it, had harnessed the dramatic potential of Voltaire’s text to produce a narrative that stayed remarkably loyal to the letter as well as the spirit of the conte. The minimalist black-and-white set was the perfect vehicle for Willaime’s extraordinary athleticism and emotional power. He morphed effortlessly into different characters: the audience chortled as the unsuspecting Huron stripped off for his baptism, smiled indulgently at the good-natured self-delusion of Mademoiselle de Kerkabon, and shared the hero’s fury as he was unjustly flung into the Bastille. But it was the hushed auditorium when Willaime enacted the self-sacrifice of Saint-Yves that most clearly demonstrated the quality of both adaptation and performance. It was a tour de force, and to see the audience rising to applaud in a theatre packed to capacity was a gratifying reminder that Voltaire’s works do not lie mouldering and unread on the library shelves of his twenty-first-century compatriots.

It so happens that both Candide and L’Ingénu are on next year’s agrégation syllabus, so the contes will find new generations of readers, actors and directors among future students. The Papal City has surely not seen the last of Barons, Grand Inquisitors and love-lorn young innocents.

– Adrienne Mason

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

Leibniz: before and after Pangloss

Writing in 1751, Voltaire celebrated and yearned for the vibrancy of the previous decades when Europe had seemingly experienced an intellectual renaissance. This golden age, the ‘Age of Louis XIV’, as he came to term it in his eponymous historical work (the Siècle de Louis XIV), had surpassed all previous centuries in terms of the various discoveries and institutions it had helped foster in the sciences and the arts. These, unlike political matters, would stand the test of time and forever attest to the capacities of human reason.

During this period, Voltaire wrote, ‘the human mind made the greatest progress’ [1], ‘[acquiring] throughout Europe greater lights than in all the ages that preceded it’, mainly through the tireless and often anonymous labours of several geniuses who, spread across Europe, ‘[had] enlightened and comforted the world during the wars that spread desolation through it’. This ‘Republic of Letters’ had gradually imposed itself throughout Europe, oblivious to the religious and political schisms that had torn it apart: ‘The arts and sciences, all of them thus received mutual assistance from each other, and the academies helped to form this republic […] the truly learned of every denomination have strengthened the band of this great society of geniuses, which is universally diffused, and everywhere independent’.

Even though this network’s influence had considerably waned in Voltaire’s time, it had subsisted over the years bringing comfort to mankind over the ‘evils which ambition and politics scatter through the world’.

G. W. Leibniz, copy of a portrait by an unknown artist, originally produced for Johann Bernoulli 1711 (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek)

G. W. Leibniz, copy of a portrait by an unknown artist, originally produced for Johann Bernoulli 1711 (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek)

Ironically enough for the future author of Candide (1759) and creator of the infamous character Dr Pangloss, it was none other than the German thinker Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), ‘perhaps a man of the most universal learning in Europe’, who had animated the universal network of communication that underpinned the intellectual revolution that had taken place decades earlier. Indeed, through Leibniz’s intervention, ‘there never was a more universal correspondence kept between philosophers than at this period’.

Already as a young man, steadily expanding his network of correspondents, Leibniz prided himself on having entered into literary commerce with many of the most learned scholars in Europe. In a letter of August 1671 to Peter Lambeck, historian and librarian at the Imperial Court in Vienna, he highlights the wide geographical distribution of his network, listing the most notable names according to country – Athanasius Kircher and Francesco de Lana in Italy, Otto von Guericke and Hermann Conring in Germany, the royal librarian Pierre de Carcavi, Louis Ferrand, and others in France, Henry Oldenburg and John Wallis in England, Johann Georg Graevius and Lambert van Velthuysen in the Low Countries, and so on.

Leibniz chose his correspondents purposefully. By establishing an epistolary commerce with the secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, in 1670, at an early stage in his career, Leibniz sought entry into the leading scientific institution of his day. Moreover, he was successful in this enterprise, producing within a year a new physical hypothesis dealing with many of the concerns of the London virtuosi at the time.

In the case of Antoine Arnauld, he sought to subject his philosophical ideas to the scrutiny and criticism of one of France’s most astute thinkers who was also a leading Catholic theologian. Since Leibniz was, alongside his various other projects, seeking to bring about Christian reconciliation, he was additionally able to test the acceptability of his irenic theses to the Roman Catholic Church through his discourse with Arnauld.

As with Arnauld, Leibniz first met the scholar Simon Foucher during his momentous stay in Paris from 1672 to 1676. He valued the sagacity Foucher had displayed in his opposition to Malebranche’s philosophy and used the medium of their correspondence to air some of his own fundamental metaphysical ideas. Foucher for his part kept Leibniz, now living in provincial Hanover, abreast of intellectual news from Paris and in particular of members of his French circle of friends – scholars such as the churchman Pierre Daniel Huet, the editor of the Journal des savants, Jean Gallois, and Melchisédech Thévenot, an important figure in the foundation of the Académie royale des Sciences.

Already in his new physical hypothesis, Leibniz had declared the improvement of the human condition to be ‘the sole aim of philosophy’. His groundbreaking work in diverse fields such as mathematics (where alongside Newton he was the inventor of the calculus), logic, engineering, geology, and the biological sciences, and his promotion of the need for scientific academies in Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, and St Petersburg in which theoretical investigations could be combined with practical considerations, all fall within the overall compass of improving life. The Berlin Academy bears to this day the Leibnizian motto ‘Theoria cum praxi’.

Title page of Essais de Theodicée, Amsterdam, 1710

Title page of Essais de Theodicée, Amsterdam, 1710

While Voltaire’s scathing criticism of his philosophy, particularly the doctrine put forward in the Théodicée that this is ‘the best of all possible worlds’, appeared difficult to answer against the backdrop of natural disasters such as the Lisbon earthquake (1755), much of Leibniz’s scientific and technological thought has been of tremendous prescience and significance – although sometimes only identified as such comparatively recently. His work on a calculating machine based on the binary system anticipated our modern day computers, his ideas on insurance and fiscal policy were designed to ensure a greater degree of protection and justice for the population, mathematical papers on determinants and combinatorics were years ahead of their time. And as his extensive surviving papers and letters are steadily edited in the critical Academy Edition, more wonders of this nature are expected.

– Audrey Borowski and Philip Beeley

[1] All quotations are from the Siècle de Louis XIV, chapter 34, ‘Des Beaux-Arts en Europe du temps de Louis XIV’. Translations are from The Works of M. de Voltaire. Translated from the French, by T. Smollett, T. Francklin and others, 36 vol. (London, 1761-1765), vol.9 (1761), p.152-62.

Voltaire and the gardens of Versailles

Voltaire had known the Palace of Versailles since his thirties, when he prepared a divertissement there to celebrate Louis XV’s marriage in 1725. Some twenty years later he was a frequent visitor as Royal Historiographer. Yet when one consults Michel Baridon’s definitive Histoire des jardins de Versailles (Arles, 2003), one finds surprisingly few references to the philosophe.

The reason is not far to seek. Voltaire’s view of the Palace, particularly during his time as Historiographer, is highly ambivalent, often verging on distaste or worse. Despite (or even because of) the emoluments he was receiving from the King, he felt himself ‘enfourné dans une bouffonnerie’,[1] where, as ‘bouffon du roi à cinquante ans’, he is involved in futile occupations ‘avec les musiciens, les comédiens, les comédiennes, les chanteurs, les danseurs’, or otherwise rushing to and fro between the capital and the Château. ‘Je cours à Paris pour une répétition, je reviens pour une décoration’.[2] Many a modern-day commuter would sympathise. Though the fêtes are sometimes even more spectacular than in Louis XIV’s time,[3] it all amounts simply to ‘des feux d’artifice dont il ne reste rien quand ils sont tirés’.[4] In the Italian language that he reserves for many of his intimate letters with Madame Denis, he expresses himself unreservedly; Versailles is ‘un paese che io abhorrisco. La corte, il mundo, i grandi, mi fanno noia’ (‘un pays que j’abhorre. La cour, le monde, les grands m’ennuient’).[5]

But, more relevant to our enquiry here, what did Voltaire feel about the gardens themselves? Did he sometimes gaze in wonderment upon, say, the Grand Canal or the two Trianons? If he did, he seems not to have left any record. Perhaps the closest we can get to an answer is what he tells his friend Cideville about how he spends his time journeying between Versailles and Paris: ‘je fais des vers en chaise de poste’.[6] No trace of ‘recueillement’ there! Versailles meant nothing but work, with the occasional theatre or spectacle as diversions. Specific mentions of these gardens are rare in his works. Comment upon the Ingénu’s walk there, ‘où il s’ennuya’,[7] is trenchant. A letter to Thiriot includes them, but only metaphorically, when he comments in relation to the tragedy Sémiramis that ‘ses jardins [the heroine’s] valaient bien ceux de Versailles’.[8]

But in Le Siècle de Louis XIV, where Voltaire seeks to encompass every aspect of the reign, he cannot afford to omit any reference to the Versailles gardens. However, details here too are scarce. The architect Jules-Hardouin Mansard ‘ne put déployer tous ses talents’ at Versailles, for ‘il fut gêné par le terrain, et par la disposition du petit château’.[9] In a generic conclusion about ‘l’art des jardins’, nothing is said about Versailles, though the designer Le Nôtre is cited ‘pour l’agréable’ as too is La Quintinie ‘pour l’utile’.[10] The antithesis appears to be set up for aesthetic rather than objective purposes. Earlier, discussing the 1680s, he links up Versailles with Marly in a broadly dismissive comment: ‘la nature forcée dans tous ces lieux de délices, et des jardins où l’art était épuisé’.[11]

Pierre Aveline l’ancien (1656-1722), Vue générale de la ville et du château de Versailles, du côté des jardins, château de Versailles, INV.GRAV 92. © Château de Versailles

Pierre Aveline l’ancien (1656-1722), Vue générale de la ville et du château de Versailles, du côté des jardins, château de Versailles, INV.GRAV 92. © Château de Versailles

But are there any conceivable allusions to Versailles in any discussion of gardens in general? Here too material is scanty, even in the ‘contes’. But one work stands out: Candide, exceptional in this as in so many other ways. The tale contains no fewer than five different gardens:[12] Thunder-ten Tronckh; Eldorado; Pococurante’s palace and the old Turk’s ‘vingt arpents’, leading up to Candide’s ‘petite métairie’. For our purposes, most of these can be quickly disposed of. The Westphalian château is an ‘anti-jardin’, based on spurious concepts. Pococurante’s domain is an exercise in disillusion; a garden does exist, but it contains no more than ‘des colifichets’. Tomorrow its owner plans to start work on it, but prospects do not sound auspicious, as Martin realises; its ‘lendemain’ belongs to the same perspective as Godot.

But the other three are somewhat less skeletal. The Turk’s domain is purely pragmatic, and capable of delicious luxuries. Candide’s ‘petite terre’ copies these principles with apparent success, though the ending is shot through with irony. But neither of these evokes any suggestion of Versailles. Only with Eldorado may one discern some recollections of the great Château. Much emphasis is laid upon wealth and abundance of many kinds, some of this stress on luxury recalling similar accounts in Le Mondain. More piquantly, the King is intelligent, witty and socially adept; memories of Versailles hover. But once again, physical details are remarkable by their scarcity. While we know that the size of the Palace portal is precisely 220 x 100 feet, we know nothing about its substance: ‘il est impossible d’exprimer quelle en était la matière’. Irony predominates here, as everywhere else in Candide. Physical description is no more than its handservant.

– Haydn Mason

[1] Voltaire to the d’Argentals, 18 January 1745.

[2] Voltaire to Cideville, 31 January 1745.

[3] Voltaire to Mme Denis, 2 December 1745.

[4] Voltaire à Podewils, 8 March 1745.

[5] December 1745.

[6] See note 2, above.

[7] L’Ingénu, chap.9 (Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford, vol.63c, p.247-48).

[8] 10 August 1746.

[9] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, in Œuvres historiques, ed. R. Pomeau (Paris, 1957), p.1219-20. Baridon makes no mention of this.

[10] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, p.1220.

[11] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, p.930-31.

[12] A useful article has appeared on this topic: P. Henry: ‘Sacred and profane gardens in Candide’, SVEC 176 (1979), p.133-52. The present study addresses a more limited aspect.

Candide and Leibniz’s garden

Lucretia and Tarquin, by Simon Vouet.

Lucretia and Tarquin, by Simon Vouet.

Schopenhauer unkindly wrote that the only merit of Leibniz’s Théodicée was that it gave rise to ‘the immortal Candide’.[1] The Théodicée does seem at least to have given rise to the subtitle of Candide, albeit indirectly. In 1737, a review of a new edition of Leibniz’s book in the Jesuit Mémoires de Trévoux dubbed its central doctrine ‘l’optimisme, thus apparently coining the term.[2] Although it could easily have been elsewhere that Voltaire first came across Leibniz’s idea that this is the best of all possible words, and picked up the smattering of Leibnizian terminology that is found in Candide, we know that he dipped into the Théodicée at the very least, since an edition of the work exists to this day in his personal library, and contains several paper markers in both volumes.[3] So he may well have noticed a key passage in its final pages about a man opting for a quiet life and cultivating his jardin. This striking parallel with the end of Candide seems to have been overlooked.

The climax of Leibniz’s Théodicée is a fable that Borges would have enjoyed, and probably did. Pallas Athena appears in a dream to Theodorus, the high priest of Jupiter, and shows him a palace with an infinite number of halls, each of which represents a possible way for things to be, but only one of which shows things as they actually are. The structure is a pyramid with an infinitely large base, and the single hall at its apex is the actual – and best possible – world. In that world, Sextus Tarquinius rapes Lucretia, which, as Pallas Athena puts it, “serves for great things”: it leads to the overthrow of the Roman monarchy and the founding of the Roman Republic.[4] She also shows Theodorus one of the many other halls in which Sextus does not go to Rome and commit his crime. Such a world, we and Theodorus are supposed to agree, is not as good as the actual one, because in it the Roman Republic does not come to be. And what exactly does Sextus do instead in the possible but non-actual world which Pallas Athena shows to Theodorus?

…Il y achète un petit jardin; en le cultivant il trouve un trésor; il devient un homme riche, aimé, considéré; il meurt dans un grande vieillesse, chéri de toute la ville…[5]

In other words, Sextus ends up as Candide would have liked to and Voltaire at Ferney more or less did. If Voltaire knew this passage – though there are surely possible worlds in which he skipped it and others in which he forgot it – we should perhaps see a wink at Leibniz in Candide’s much-discussed closing words.

– Anthony Gottlieb

[1] Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, ch.46.

[2] February 1737, p.207.

[3] Corpus des notes marginales, vol.5, p.298-99.

[4] Théodicée, section 416.

[5] Théodicée, section 415.