ASECS 2017: the twentieth century meets the eighteenth

This spring, the Voltaire Foundation showcased its publications at the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. One of those staffing the VF book stand was Evan Casey, a graduate student in History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Here, Evan recounts her first-time experience of ASECS.

Downtown Minneapolis

Downtown Minneapolis.

As a history student working primarily on twentieth-century America I felt a bit of an interloper at an event for eighteenth-century scholars. However, I found that while I may have been out of my primary research period, I was not out of my methodical or theoretical comfort zone. I enjoyed participating in the graduate and women’s caucus luncheons, as well as the Voltaire Foundation’s cocktail and dessert party (which drew over 80 ASECS attendees to the suite of retiring executive director Byron Wells), the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment editorial board’s working dinner, and a pub outing on the final night of the meeting, hosted by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Modern History.

Vf book stand, with Kelsey Rubin-Detlev and Evan Casey.

Vf book stand, with Kelsey Rubin-Detlev and Evan Casey.

I spent most of the conference at the Voltaire Foundation book stand, which provided an ideal spot from which to encounter the dix-huitiémistes in their native habitat. All three days brought consistent traffic between and during conference sessions. Several of the authors stopped by throughout the conference; most were pleased to see the display and enthusiastically took promotional order forms for their texts. Shoppers seemed similarly impressed by the exhibit of recent releases from Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment and the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire. There was repeated enthusiasm for some of the newer books, including the monographs John Millar and the Scottish Enlightenment: family life and world history by Nicholas B. Miller, and William Beckford: the elusive Orientalist by Laurent Châtel, as well as Casanova: Enlightenment philosopher edited by Ivo Cerman, Susan Reynolds, and Diego Lucci. Great interest was also expressed in the final volume of the Correspondance de Madame de Graffigny, which completes the 15-vol. edition of all of Françoise de Graffigny’s letters.

Ecrasez l’infâme tote bag.

Ecrasez l’infâme tote bag.

Of course the most popular items at the stand were the complimentary ‘Ecrasez l’infâme’ canvas tote bags. These tote bags made a clear statement of fashion – so much so that our supply ran out early, though their appeal brought ASECS attendees to the stand throughout the weekend. The tote bags, emblazoned with the eponymous philosopher’s iconic motto, also sported the URL for the Voltaire Foundation website.

The website also provided a ready point of reference to another question that was posed frequently during the conference – how does one submit an inquiry or formal proposal to the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment team? The answer, of course, is through the series homepage, which includes an overview of its prestigious history, its presence in university libraries worldwide, information for prospective authors, and submission process guidelines. Many prospective authors who visited our table at ASECS expressed enthusiasm for this.

OSE editorial board dinner.

OSE editorial board dinner.

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment itself (including its former incarnation as Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century/ SVEC) also featured on the program. Members and associates of the VF – Director Nicholas Cronk, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment General Editor Gregory Brown, editorial board members Geoffrey Turnovsky, Karen Stolley and Melissa Hyde, as well as Oxford junior research fellow Kelsey Rubin-Detlev – participated in a roundtable entitled ‘The Enlightenment since Besterman: sixty years of Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century’, which highlighted important works from the SVEC backlist.

Naturally, I would encourage those already thinking forward to the 2018 meeting in Orlando to plan time to visit the Vf exhibit, and to check in on all the latest publications and forthcoming news.

– Evan Casey

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#NousSommesArouet?

A constantly recurring theme throughout Voltaire’s œuvre is the intolerance exhibited by established religions and the barbarity that all too often follows on from that.

Throughout his life he was haunted by the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of French Protestants at the hands of Catholics. He described it in his epic poem La Henriade (1723), later complaining to Frederic the Great: ‘Croiriez-vous bien qu’on m’a reproché plus d’une fois d’avoir peint avec des couleurs trop odieuses la St Barthelemy?’ (letter of c.15 January 1737). He maintained that he always suffered illness on the anniversary of the atrocity.

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The Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, by François Dubois (c.1576).

During his exile in London (1726-1728) he drafted essays about England which he published first in English as the Letters concerning the English nation in 1733, then in French in 1734, and many later editions, in the version we now know as Lettres philosophiques. This work opens with chapters on the religions of England, in which he praises the tolerance of some, such as the Quakers, and criticises others for their intolerance.

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While Voltaire repeatedly condemns the godly massacres by the Jews described in the Old Testament, and Islam’s violent conquests (see Diego Venturino, ‘Imposteur ou législateur? Le Mahomet des Lumières’, in Religions en transition dans la seconde moitié du dix-huitième siècle, SVEC 2000:02), his main target always remains Christian intolerance.

The adoption of the battle-cry ‘Ecrasez l’infâme’, first used in a letter to D’Alembert in October 1760, and referring to the crimes of the Church, indicates that his concern was not merely historical or literary. On three occasions he waged campaigns against the intolerance and violent injustice committed in the name of religion in France in the cases of Jean Calas (1762) and the Sirven family (1764), falsely charged with the murder of a family member to prevent their conversion to Catholicism, and the chevalier de La Barre (1766), a young nobleman wrongly accused of blasphemy and brutally executed. The first of these provoked Voltaire’s wide-ranging study of intolerance, the Traité sur la tolérance (OCV, vol.56c). Of La Barre he wrote, in the Dictionnaire philosophique article ‘Torture’: ‘Lorsque le chevalier de La Barre, petit-fils d’un lieutenant général des armées, jeune homme de beaucoup d’esprit et d’une grande espérance, mais ayant toute l’étourderie d’une jeunesse effrénée, fut convaincu d’avoir chanté des chansons impies, et même d’avoir passé devant une procession de capucins sans avoir ôté son chapeau, les juges d’Abbeville, gens comparables aux sénateurs romains, ordonnèrent non seulement qu’on lui arrachât la langue, qu’on lui coupât la main et qu’on brûlât son corps à petit feu; mais ils l’appliquèrent encore à la torture pour savoir précisément combien de chansons il avait chanté, et combien de processions il avait vues passer, le chapeau sur la tête.’

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Voltaire promettant son appui a la famille Calas, by C. de Last (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Major works that deal with the theme of Christian intolerance and persecution include: the Dictionnaire philosophique (OCV, vol.35-36), La Philosophie de l’histoire (OCV, vol.59), Des conspirations contre les peuples (OCV, vol.61b), L’Examen important de milord Bolingbroke (OCV, vol.62), Dieu et les hommes (OCV, vol.69), and De la paix perpétuelle (OCV, vol.70, forthcoming). In the last years of his life Voltaire gathered all his arguments against dogmatic religion in three closely related works: La Bible enfin expliquée (OCV, vol.79a), a passage-by-passage dissection of the basis of Christianity; Un chrétien contre six Juifs and Histoire de l’établissement du christianisme (both OCV, vol.79b, newly published by the Voltaire Foundation). The three together, benefitting from a lifetime’s consideration of the crimes perpetrated in the name of religion, form a compelling summation of his argument for toleration and justice.

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The interrogation of the chevalier de La Barre as depicted on the monument to him in Abbeville (1907).

Of De la paix perpétuelle the Mémoires secrets of 17 September 1769 wrote: ‘Ce projet […] traité politiquement par l’abbé de Saint-Pierre et par M. Rousseau de Genève, ne sert ici que de cadre au développement du système de tolérance que ne cesse de prêcher depuis si longtemps le fameux philosophe de Ferney. Il voudrait qu’on détruisît tous les dogmes, sources intarissables de troubles et de divisions; il trace en conséquence un tableau des horreurs du fanatisme, et ce sujet remanié cent fois par le même auteur, reprend sous son pinceau encore plus de chaleur et d’énergie: le fiel qu’il broie avec ses couleurs, donne à sa touche tout le terrible des peintures de Michel Ange. M. de Voltaire est toujours sublime quand il parle d’après son cœur.’

Voltaire himself, in the article ‘Fanatisme’ of the Dictionnaire philosophique, asked a question that has acquired a chilling relevance from the recent events in France: ‘Que répondre à un homme qui vous dit qu’il aime mieux obéir à Dieu qu’aux hommes, et qui, en conséquence, est sûr de mériter le ciel en vous égorgeant?’

The answer to this that he gives at the end of the Histoire de l’établissement du christianisme not only has relevance to the supposed ‘right to offend’ so frequently claimed in these days, but questions in its turn all sides in such conflicts:

‘Je me donnerai bien de garde de m’élever avec colère contre les malheureux qui ont perverti ainsi leur raison; je me bornerai à les plaindre, en cas que leur folie n’aille pas jusqu’à la persécution et au meurtre; car alors ils ne seraient que des voleurs de grand chemin. Quiconque n’est coupable que de se tromper mérite compassion; quiconque persécute mérite d’être traité comme une bête féroce.

Pardonnons aux hommes, et qu’on nous pardonne. Je finis par ce souhait unique que Dieu veuille exaucer!’

– M.S.