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

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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, tolerance, solidarity (liberté, égalité, fraternité)

Paris, Boulevard Voltaire, 14 November 2015

Paris, Boulevard Voltaire, 14 November 2015

All of us at the Voltaire Foundation express warmest solidarity with our friends and colleagues in France, in the wake of the tragic and brutal events of 13 November.

André Glucksmann, who sadly died last week on 10 November, wrote his final book about Voltaire, Voltaire contre-attaque (Robert Laffont, 2014). Discussing Voltaire’s views on toleration, he quotes the conclusion of the article « Tolérance » in the Dictionnaire philosophique:

« Nous devons nous tolérer mutuellement parce que nous sommes tous faibles, inconséquents, sujets à la mutabilité, à l’erreur: un roseau couché par le vent dans la fange dira-t-il au roseau voisin couché dans un sens contraire, rampe à ma façon, misérable, ou je présenterai requête pour qu’on t’arrache et qu’on te brûle ? »

– Nicholas Cronk

London, Tower Bridge, 14 November 2015

London, Tower Bridge, 14 November 2015