Voltaire Foundation appoints Digital Research Fellow

I am delighted to announce my appointment as Digital Research Fellow at the Voltaire Foundation for the academic year 2017-2018. This is the first Digital Humanities appointment in French at Oxford, and is made possible by the generosity of M. Julien Sevaux and the John Fell Fund. As Digital Research Fellow, I will oversee the creation of a pilot Digital Voltaire project, establishing a dataset that for the first time contains all of Voltaire’s works, including his correspondence, as well as undertake a series of computational experiments around the theme of ‘Visualising Voltaire’.

Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735.

Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735.

As the monumental print edition of the Complete Works of Voltaire nears completion, the Voltaire Foundation is currently preparing the ground for Digital Voltaire, an interactive and innovative digital edition of Voltaire’s Œuvres complètes. The pilot project we are embarking upon will thus bring together two key existing datasets: TOUT Voltaire, developed in collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago; and Voltaire’s letters, drawn from Electronic Enlightenment. The combined dataset will include more than 20,000 individual documents and over 11 million words, making this one of, if not the largest single-author databases available for digital humanities research. This resource, together with a focused research project to scope and understand its potential uses and applications, will enable the Voltaire Foundation to begin to create a conceptual and infrastructural framework for a broader, transformational Digital Voltaire, for which fundraising efforts have already begun.

The Visualising Voltaire project will become part of the soon-to-be-created ‘Voltaire Lab’ – a virtual space for new research experimentation and dissemination centred on Voltaire’s textual output and its relationship to the broader field of eighteenth-century studies. By interrogating the ‘big data’ of Voltaire’s texts at both a macro- and microscopic level, we hope to shed new light on Voltaire’s use of intertextuality, his most commonly used themes and literary motifs, his intellectual networks, and his development as a thinker. This research project will further benefit from close existing ties with the ARTFL Project and the newly-established Textual Optics Lab at the University of Chicago, and with the Labex OBVIL (‘Observatoire de la vie littéraire’) based at the Sorbonne; centres for digital humanities research and development in French studies where much of this type of analysis has been pioneered.

Visualising Voltaire will include a number of literary experiments to test the scholarly and critical value of a combined digital archive of Voltaire’s texts. Following on from the work of Franco Moretti and the Stanford Literary Lab, the project will investigate how we can apply distant reading approaches to this large corpus in order to discover new connections and patterns at scale, and, at the same time, how these new approaches can interact and intervene with our traditional close reading modes of analysis. To this end, we have identified two areas of research that we will pursue in 2017-2018, and that we hope will lead to further projects in the future.

Sequence alignment.

Sequence alignment in the intertextual edition of Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes, Centre for Digital Humanities Research, Australian National University.

In the first instance, we will focus on Voltaire’s ‘intertextuality’ and how computational techniques such as sequence alignment – borrowed from the field of bio-informatics – can help us better understand the rich complexity of Voltaire’s writing practices. Indeed, one of the major research questions that has arisen from the preparation of the Complete Works of Voltaire concerns Voltaire’s unacknowledged use and reuse of other texts. This takes two forms: the widespread reuse (borrowing/theft/imitation) of works by other writers, and the equally widespread reuse of his own work. This is a huge subject that has never been satisfactorily studied until now.

In a second instance, the completion of the Complete Works of Voltaire on paper has also created the opportunity to provide an index to the whole of his writings, notably using automatic indexing and classification techniques developed in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In addition to our ‘traditional’ indexes of the paper editions, which can be digitised and leveraged for computational analysis, we will also aim to generate ‘thematic maps’ of Voltaire’s works and correspondence using both supervised and unsupervised machine learning algorithms such as vector space analysis and topic modelling. These sorts of approaches will, we hope, open up Voltaire’s writings in wholly new and exciting ways, creating opportunities for high-profile public engagement activities such as hackathons, and generating new areas of investigation for potential doctoral research students.

Choix de Chansons.

From Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s Choix de Chansons, 1774 – subject of the ARC Discovery grant ‘Performing Transdisciplinarity’.

And finally, beyond these specific research projects, my role as Digital Research Fellow will entail making and maintaining connections with digital humanities teams both locally and internationally, building on past and current relationships to generate new research initiatives moving forward. We are interested, for example, in establishing a better understanding of the importance of Voltaire’s Enlightenment network and its participation in the larger eighteenth-century Republic of Letters, questions that can be addressed in collaboration with the Center for Spatial and Network Analysis at Stanford, and the Cultures of Knowledge project based in Oxford. The Voltaire Lab can thus become a venue for engaging with other complementary Oxford digital projects, such as the Newton Project, which will allow for broader access as well as further fundamental research. Newton is often seen as the key thinker who sets the agenda for Enlightenment scientific thinking – through his emphasis on empiricism and the experimental method – while Voltaire, the dominant intellectual figure of the Enlightenment, helps to popularise Newton’s scientific method across Europe. Voltaire’s role as a key critic and disseminator of ideas and texts is also an area of research to which digital approaches can bring much to bear, in particular by linking his correspondence to projects such as Western Sydney University’s French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe and Mapping Print, Charting Enlightenment.

We are equally keen to investigate the deeply interdisciplinary nature of Voltaire’s work beyond the purely literary or even textual, and, more generally, of his role in the often-overlooked interplay of music, images, and text in eighteenth-century print culture. This is in fact the subject of our recently awarded Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, ‘Performing Transdisciplinarity’, which brings together a team of interdisciplinary researchers from the Australian National University, the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney, and Oxford.

The above are just a few of the countless avenues of research opened up by digital approaches to Voltaire’s work and legacy, and to which many more will be added as the larger Digital Voltaire project takes shape over the next few years. As the newly appointed Digital Research Fellow at the VF, I very much look forward to keeping you all informed on the results of these experiments and of the project’s evolution in due course.

– Glenn Roe


Les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, the first 25 years – the pioneers

OCV – ‘one of the most significant and thoughtful scholarly ventures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ – John Renwick

The idea of publishing the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire is 50 this month. This has made us reflect on the many people who have been – and still are – working to realise this ambitious project in 2019. The current Vf in-house team have all been around at least ten years; however, only one of us was part of the first twenty-five years, so he was asked to write a blog!

Theodore Besterman

Theodore Besterman.

Theodore Deodatus Nathaniel Besterman, in the course of a life of extraordinary intellectual activity, became a passionate voltairien, at one time living in Voltaire’s house, Les Délices, and sleeping in the philosopher’s own bedroom. Whether Besterman’s earlier experience as research officer for the London Society for Psychical Research enabled any special insights through this location is not recorded, but he used his time in Geneva to produce an edition of Voltaire’s correspondence (107 volumes) and Notebooks, as well as starting the series Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century (now Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment). After moving back to England he proposed, at the second congress of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies at St Andrews in 1967 (the Society itself being in part Besterman’s creation), to produce a critical edition of the complete works of Voltaire, an offer enthusiastically received by Jean Ehrard, René Pomeau, Owen Taylor, Samuel Taylor and Jeroom Vercruysse. The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire were born and an international committee formed to direct the edition, including, as well as the above, William Barber (later general editor), Roland Mortier and Robert Niklaus. The Voltaire Foundation was based at Besterman’s house at Thorpe Mandeville in Oxfordshire.

Besterman immediately started a revised edition of the correspondence, to be called the ‘Definitive edition’ (1968-1977), and of the Notebooks, published in 1968. The following year saw the appearance of La Philosophie de l’histoire, edited by J. H. Brumfitt, and in this year too Besterman published his biography of Voltaire, which was to see two revised editions over the following six years, and translations into Italian and German in 1971.

Les Délices

The Maison Les Délices in its garden in Geneva (Wikimedia commons).

1970 saw Owen Taylor’s edition of La Henriade, a revision of his edition published in 1965 in vols 38-40 of Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, this series also being a creation of Besterman while in Geneva. (Owen’s bequest still supports a travel grant established to support young researchers). In the same year Jeroom Vercruysse’s edition of La Pucelle appeared.

Research and publication progressed steadily, helped from 1974 by Samuel Taylor’s detailed recension of Voltaire’s emendations to his own text in the copy of the ‘encadrée’ edition in Voltaire’s own library in Leningrad (SVEC 124). In this year William Barber became general editor. David Williams completed his three-volume edition of the Commentaires sur Corneille and he continues to contribute to the series, most recently in the Nouveaux Mélanges (2017).

1976 brought great changes as Theodore Besterman died and the Voltaire Foundation was bequeathed to the University of Oxford. A small office was set up in Oxford in 1977, consisting of just two people, to be joined the following year by the present writer, whose initial responsibilities were the continuing publication of Ralph Leigh’s edition of Rousseau’s correspondence, which Besterman had also taken on, and the Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century series, now with Haydn Mason as general editor.

Publication of the complete works continued, with notably, in 1980, Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, edited by René Pomeau, who had previously published his study La Religion de Voltaire and who went on to lead the team that wrote Voltaire en son temps, published by the Voltaire Foundation, a rich source for Voltaire studies. The number of international collaborators increased and Christiane Mervaud and Haydn Mason joined the committee. In 1984 La Défense de mon oncle and A Warburton, edited by José-Michel Moureaux, appeared and his work on Lettres sur les miracles will be published in 2018 in collaboration with Olivier Ferret.


Sir Isaac Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt. (Wikimedia commons).

In 1986 Le Droit du seigneur, edited by W. D. Howarth, Haydn Mason’s predecessor at Bristol University, was published and his edition of Le Dépositaire was revised by Russell Goulbourne and published in 2013. In 1987 John Renwick’s edition of André Destouches à Siam appeared in volume 62, and he continues to contribute widely to the series. Roland Mortier, whose Le Philosophe ignorant and L’Examen important de milord Bolingbroke also appeared in volume 62, is thanked for his work on the Fragment d’une lettre du lord Bolingbroke by Jean Dagen, whose edition appears in a volume to be published in 2017; and in 1988 Sylvain Menant joined the committee – his most recent contribution was published in 2014 in Contes de Guillaume Vadé.

Our 25-year survey closes with the publication of Voltaire’s magnum opus of scientific popularisation, the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, edited by William Barber and Robert L. Walters. William’s editorship ended the following year.

This period saw the idea of a rare individual, who might, some thought, have almost believed himself to be a reincarnation of Voltaire, grow into reality through the collaboration of a large number of scholars in several countries and continents who laid a solid foundation for the next twenty-five years plus. To be continued…

– Martin Smith
Oxford, July 2017

Le Siècle de Louis XIV en alphabet

Page 438 from Voltaire's Siecle.

Voltaire, Le Siècle de Louis XIV, 1re éd. (Berlin, 1751), t.2, p.438.

Il est de ces textes du corpus voltairien qui passent relativement inaperçus aujourd’hui, malgré leur succès au dix-huitième siècle. C’est le cas du ‘Catalogue de la plupart des écrivains français qui ont paru dans le siècle de Louis XIV, pour servir à l’histoire littéraire de ce temps’, de même que des autres listes, d’‘Artistes célèbres’, de ‘Maréchaux’, de ‘Ministres d’État’, des ‘Souverains contemporains’, faisant partie du Siècle de Louis XIV, publiés cette semaine dans le tome 12 des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire.

L’époque de Voltaire était friande de listes. Il n’y a pas que le fameux Mille e tre du Don Juan de Da Ponte et de Mozart: depuis le Moyen Age, on compile toutes sortes de biens, de figures, d’objets et de concepts à l’usage des gens de lettres, des marchands, des orateurs, des juristes, etc., pour soulager la mémoire et pour s’y retrouver dans les méandres de la culture. L’auteur du Dictionnaire philosophique est aussi exemplaire de cette pensée par liste, qui cherche à cataloguer, non tant pour compiler à l’infini comme dans les Cornucopiae de la Renaissance, mais au contraire, selon un esprit à la fois pratique et synthétique, pour rendre le savoir compréhensible et portatif. La chronologie de Hénault (le Nouvel Abrégé chronologique de l’histoire de France, 1749) dont la forme pour un lecteur moderne peut sembler un peu bizarre, se vendait pourtant très bien au dix-huitième siècle.

Sébastien Le Clerc le vieux (1637-1714) d’après Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), Louis XIV, protecteur des arts et des sciences, château de Versailles, inv.grav 16.

Loin d’être une vaine addition érudite de noms propres, le ‘Catalogue des écrivains’ et les autres listes servent à ‘illustrer’ le Siècle de Louis XIV, et ceci aux deux sens du terme: il s’agit à la fois d’exemplifier la thèse que Voltaire développe dans le chapitre 32 du Siècle, ‘Des beaux-arts’, selon laquelle Louis XIV est un grand monarque parce qu’il a encouragé les arts et les sciences, et de mettre en lumière le lustre de son règne, apogée de l’esprit humain, qui supplante tous les autres siècles par l’excellence (et l’abondance) de ses productions d’esprit. La forme du catalogue permet aussi à Voltaire de prendre quelque liberté par rapport au récit officiel du Siècle, offrant la possibilité de jeux de renvois et de polyphonie.

Au fil des rééditions, Voltaire amplifie ses listes: il ajoute de nouvelles entrées, il développe aussi des anecdotes piquantes, cite des vers inédits, répond à des journalistes, polémique avec ses contemporains. S’il n’est pas le premier à avoir produit un dictionnaire des grands hommes du Grand Siècle (Charles Perrault, l’auteur des Contes de ma mère l’Oye, a aussi publié des Hommes illustres en 1696), Voltaire se distingue nettement de ses devanciers, en particulier par le style de ses notices. Faisant rarement dans l’hagiographie, l’historien de la littérature du dix-septième siècle cherche souvent, au contraire, à en souligner les particularités, voire les bizarreries.


Gérard Edelinck, frontispice des Hommes illustres qui ont paru en France durant ce siècle de Charles Perrault (1696).

On connaît bien Nicolas Boileau, le satiriste traducteur de l’Art poétique et du Traité du Sublime, mais beaucoup moins ses frères, dont Jacques Boileau: ‘Docteur de Sorbonne: esprit bizarre, qui a fait des livres bizarres écrits dans un latin extraordinaire, comme L’Histoire des flagellants, Les Attouchements impudiques, Les Habits des prêtres. On lui demandait pourquoi il écrivait toujours en latin. C’est, dit-il, de peur que ces évêques me lisent; ils me persécuteraient’ (OCV, t.12, p.62-63). L’évêque Bossuet est certes un prédicateur respecté, auteur des Oraisons funèbres et du Discours sur l’histoire universelle; mais on raconte, à tort bien sûr, qu’il a vécu marié avec une certaine Des-Vieux, et qu’un certain auteur plaisantin, St Hyacinthe, serait issu de ce mariage scandaleux… Le peintre Jean Jouvenet, élève de Le Brun, ‘a peint presque tous les objets d’une couleur un peu jaune’: c’est qu’‘il les voyait de cette couleur par une singulière conformation d’organes’ (p.212).

Il n’y a pas que des noms célèbres dans les listes consacrées aux auteurs et aux artistes qui ont marqué le siècle de Louis XIV: Voltaire cherche aussi à faire œuvre de mémoire, et s’assure que la postérité n’oublie pas le nom de ces petits poètes, historiens érudits, chroniqueurs, traducteurs, dont la muse ou le labeur ont aussi contribué à faire du Grand Siècle le ‘chef-d’œuvre de l’esprit humain’.

Voltaire à Chabanon, 16 avril 1768, D14955).

Voltaire à Chabanon, 16 avril 1768 (D14955).

Le nom de Voltaire, qui a écrit ses premiers poèmes alors que le vieux roi était toujours en vie, aurait dû selon toute logique figurer dans le ‘Catalogue des écrivains’. Modestie oblige, il n’y est pas, mais ce n’est pas sans clin d’œil: en effet, après la dernière notice, consacrée à Voiture, Voltaire écrit: ‘Ce n’est pas la peine de pousser plus loin ce catalogue’…

– Jean-Alexandre Perras

The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire are nearly fifty years old

John Renwick has been a member of the ‘Œuvres complètes de Voltaire’ team since 1970, and of its Conseil scientifique since 1997. Within OCV, he has edited over fifty individual texts, from ‘Amulius et Numitor’ (1711) to the ‘Fragments sur l’histoire générale’ and the ‘Fragments sur l’Inde’ (1773). He has signed the edition of twenty-eight articles in the ‘Questions sur l’Encyclopédie’ and forty-five chapters of the ‘Essai sur les mœurs’, and more than sixty entries for the forthcoming volume 9 of the ‘Corpus des notes marginales’. He is the editor of the major text ‘Traité sur la tolérance’.


In a recent contribution (September 2016), Jeroom Vercruysse, the editor of Voltaire’s mock epic poem La Pucelle and many other texts since, reminds us of how he and a small number of colleagues were invited by Theodore Besterman to start producing a critical edition of Voltaire’s complete works. In it, he remembers – though fleetingly – how those ‘Founding Fathers’ translated their early aspirations into the concrete formulation of editorial policy. He mentions also their early recognition that such a vast corpus of work would require their having recourse to ‘d’autres dix-huitiémistes afin d’assurer la préparation et la publication de textes si divers’. And he concludes his reminiscences with the observation that ‘nous envisageons la sortie des derniers volumes vers 2020’.


His comments could not fail to elicit a positive response from this particular reader, who was one of the early second-generation recruits to be approached by Theodore Besterman (in 1970, I was a mere 31-year-old, the same age as Jeroom at the inception of the Œuvres complètes in 1967) and who, decades later (again like Jeroom), is still intimately associated with the enterprise which he also (just as fervently) hopes to see to its completion in 2020.


It is, however, and more precisely, the comments that Jeroom makes en filigrane about the original editorial approaches that embolden me to return to, and then to expand upon, a topic (that I first treated in 1994 [1]) that now – more than twenty years later – concerns more particularly the constant evolution of the original editorial principles over the fifty years that have intervened since inception in 1968 with the Notebooks, edited by Besterman, then in La Philosophie de l’histoire, edited by J.H. Brumfitt in 1969. Having constantly been a party to a redefinition and an expansion of those editorial parameters, I have been privileged, from beginning to what is now near-end, to witness the refinement of those parameters, a progressive process that has been responsible for making the OCV into what is arguably one of the most significant and thoughtful scholarly ventures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


The fact that it has also transpired to be a ‘formidable aventure intellectuelle’ makes it even more remarkable. How and why this came about is worth charting in a preliminary sketch that will one day (or so it is to be hoped) provide the impetus for someone to turn the whole question into a detailed study, because, in the time-honoured phrase, this topic is surely a beau sujet de thèse.

– John Renwick

[1] See John Renwick, ‘The Complete works of Voltaire: a review of the first twenty-five years’ in Pour encourager les autres. Studies for the tercentenary of Voltaire’s birth 1694-1994, SVEC 320, p.165-207.

Voltaire editor, edited and re-edited

The first posthumous edition of Voltaire’s complete works, printed in Kehl in 1784 and financed by Beaumarchais, was recently the subject of a 900-page thesis (Linda Gil, Paris-Sorbonne, 2014). The latest volume of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, not lagging far behind, at 604 pages, also started life with this 70-volume edition as its focus, in particular the nearly 4000 pages that make up what the editors call the ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’. Under this title, made up in large part of Voltaire’s 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (later La Raison par alphabet) and the 1770-1772 Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, the Kehl editors included a number of previously unknown articles and fragments.

A manuscript of one of the texts in this volume (article ‘Ame’, in the hand of Voltaire’s secretary, Wagnière). Bibliothèque de Genève, Musée Voltaire: MS 34/1, f.1.

A manuscript of one of the texts in this volume (article ‘Ame’, in the hand of Voltaire’s secretary, Wagnière). Bibliothèque de Genève, Musée Voltaire: MS 34/1, f.1.

Our edition of these texts attempts to pin down what they were, when (and whether) Voltaire wrote them, whether certain groups can be discerned amongst them, and to what degree the printed record of the Kehl edition reflects the manuscripts that were actually found after Voltaire’s death – as much as is still possible, that is, after two hundred years have elapsed, and when most of the manuscript sources have long since disappeared.

As the volume moved through the stages of the editing and publishing process, it proved to be a protean thing, changing shape several times: some texts originally included in the original list of contents were found not to belong in the volume after all; others were discovered or moved in from elsewhere along the way; and once or twice new manuscripts unexpectedly came to light, changing the tentative dating and identification of one or another of the texts. What began as a simple alphabetically ordered series of about 45 texts eventually took shape as a book in four sections (of uneven length) which covers the ground of all posthumous additions to Voltaire’s ‘alphabetical works’, usually under the title ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’, from 1784, through the nineteenth-century, right up to the present day, in the form of a fragment that has in fact never before been published at all.

The chain of editorial decision-making goes further back in time than one initially realises, however, starting with Voltaire’s own apparent intention to produce a compendium of excerpts from other people’s works. As Bertram Schwarzbach adumbrated in 1982, twenty-four of the texts in this volume (with a possible twenty-fifth), show Voltaire (or one of his secretaries, perhaps?) re-working existing writings by others in what sometimes strongly resembles current practices of copying and pasting, much as we move sentences and parts of sentences around using a word processor. This in no way suggests that Voltaire was guilty of plagiarism: to begin with, he did not publish these re-workings in his own lifetime; furthermore, the boundaries of editing, re-publishing and re-purposing in the late eighteenth century were different than they are today. But the fact that these manuscripts were found amongst Voltaire’s papers meant that his early editors believed them to be by him (with one exception, ‘Fanatisme’, which they recognised as an abridged version of Deleyre’s Encyclopédie article). Thus were these texts eventually published under Voltaire’s name in the Kehl edition, leading to a (partly) unintentional distortion of the Voltairean canon, perpetuated in all subsequent editions until the Oxford Œuvres complètes. Questions such as these are soon to be addressed more generally in a one-day conference: ‘Editorialités: Practices of editing and publishing’, and Marian Hobson has written elsewhere about the value of critical editions. It is in part thanks to modern-day editorial work that the editor-generated puzzles of over two centuries ago are now being unpicked: a neat illustration of just how much the role of editor has changed in that time.

– Gillian Pink

OCV update: Focus on Louis XIV

Bonne rentrée! This September marks a milestone for the OCV team as we publish the final chapters of our critical edition of Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV (OCV, vol.13D), in which Voltaire explores the cultural history of the reign, including chapters on religious conflict and sectarianism as well as on achievements in the scientific, artistic and literary spheres. This volume completes the critical edition of the narrative of this monumental work, representing over 1500 pages of Voltaire’s text and editorial notes. The general editor, Diego Venturino, has meticulously pieced together Voltaire’s sources and analysed the context in which he worked and the way he sifted evidence to provide a revealing and comprehensive account of Voltaire’s historical method. We’re very happy with how handsome they look on our shelf, as well as proud of the diligence and hard work that has gone into making them just as magnificent on the inside.


We were also really pleased this summer to launch an update to our explorer’s guide to Louis XIV. We wanted to provide a resource which would enable the scholarly research in the books to reach a wider audience, as well as giving some of the background to one of the most remarkable monarchs in European history. When the BBC series Versailles hit our screens earlier in the summer, we thought it would be interesting to explore some of the characters and events featured in the series from the viewpoint, not so much of ‘were they really like that?’ but ‘what did Voltaire have to say about them?’. It’s striking how many of the eye-catching incidents can be traced back to him, and we’ve enjoyed exploring how much further some of the hints provided by Voltaire and other historians have been stretched by the mischievous programme-makers.

As joint ‘secretaries’ of the edition, both working part-time and fitting in family commitments around our work on Voltaire, Pippa Faucheux and I have been particularly pleased that we’ve been able to keep the continuity over the summer, working closely with our valued collaborators, including general editor Professor Venturino and our partners at the Palace of Versailles, as well as our indexer, typesetters and printers in the UK. We’re now excited about moving on to get to grips with the fascinating ‘Catalogue des écrivains’, the Who’s Who of Louis XIV’s world that launches the reader into the narrative of the Siècle, for publication in spring 2017 (OCV, vol.12).

– Alison Oliver

A propos des Œuvres complètes ou comment tout a commencé

La toute récente réunion du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, qui eut lieu à la Sorbonne le 16 juin 2016, est à l’origine de ces réminiscences de Jeroom Vercruysse sur les débuts du projet:

Après un après-midi de travail lors du congrès de la SIEDS de Saint-Andrews (1967), René Pomeau me glissa dans l’oreille: ‘Venez avec moi, Besterman veut nous voir’. Que nous voulait-il? Je connaissais le personnage, il avait publié mon premier article en 1959 et ma thèse l’année précédente. Nous voilà dans un salon de l’Université où nous rencontrâmes Jean Ehrard, Owen Taylor et Samuel Taylor. Besterman, que j’avais déjà rencontré plusieurs fois, ne dérogea pas à ses habitudes quelquefois assez brusques. ‘Messieurs,’ nous dit-il, ‘êtes-vous d’accord pour entreprendre une édition complète et critique des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire?’ La réponse fut unanime, ‘oui’. Un verre de sherry confirma le propos.

Il ne restait plus qu’à réaliser ce projet dont certains collègues avaient déjà rêvé. Mais nous étions loin, moi surtout, le cadet (j’avais 31 ans), d’entrevoir l’ampleur, la durée et la difficulté de l’entreprise. Aujourd’hui, près de 50 années plus tard, la fin du tunnel est en vue. Mais que de chemin parcouru, de difficultés surmontées! Un mois après le congrès nous fûmes invités au célèbre Reform Club de Londres. En hôte parfait, Besterman nous régala d’un repas dans un salon de ce club si fameux. Et nous tînmes ensuite notre première réunion du Comité scientifique que nous étions devenus. Œuvres complètes, critiques, cela allait de soi. Dans quel ordre devaient paraître les futurs volumes? Quelle ligne de conduite serait suivie pour préparer les textes?

OCV team

La réunion du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes du 16 juin 2016. Assis, de gauche à droite: Marie-Hélène Cotoni, Christiane Mervaud, Jeroom Vercruysse; debout, de gauche à droite: Gérard Laudin, Gerhardt Stenger, Nicholas Cronk, John R. Iverson, Sylvain Menant, Russell Goulbourne, François Moureau.

Il suffit de prendre en main l’un des derniers tomes parus: il ressemble comme une goutte d’eau au premier sorti des presses. De nombreuses allées et venues entre Bruxelles, Genève, Londres et Paris (sans oublier les réunions tenues au cours des congrès des Lumières successifs), un courrier abondant, tout cela marcha le plus tranquillement du monde. Le premier volume publié fut La Henriade, dont O. Taylor avait déjà fourni une édition critique dans les Studies on Voltaire; il la révisa, l’adapta aux normes convenues et l’entreprise prit la route. Besterman me confia La Pucelle d’Orléans qui, débarrassée de ses oripeaux séculaires, vit le jour en 1971. Entre-temps chacun des membres du Conseil apporta son écot à l’entreprise. Mais il apparut très vite qu’il fallait recourir à d’autres dix-huitiémistes afin d’assurer la préparation et la publication de textes si divers. Ce ne fut guère une entreprise aisée pour tous les éditeurs, particulièrement pour ceux qui se chargèrent des ‘grands machins’.

Besterman me ‘colla’ les Œuvres alphabétiques. Bien. Je me mis au travail, mais je dus également trouver des collaborateurs qualifiés. Le Comité étendit ses compétences, augmenta ses effectifs, se renouvela car malheureusement il eut à déplorer des décès et des retraits. Une fois les textes attribués, le Comité dut, au fur et à mesure de l’arrivée des copies, procéder à des relectures, formuler des critiques et des suggestions souvent délicates, recourir à de nouvelles compétences. Des milliers de pages passèrent de mains en mains. Tout cela se passa dans une entente parfaite, jamais un mot plus vif que d’autres ne fut prononcé, et près d’un demi-siècle plus tard, je constate que le Conseil scientifique élargi assure toujours bénévolement ses devoirs avec soin, avec compétence et avec rigueur. Nous envisageons la sortie des derniers volumes vers 2020. Plût aux dieux que je sois encore là pour dire simplement ‘enfin’! Utinam dis placet!

– Jeroom Vercruysse, professeur émérite Vrije Universiteit, Bruxelles