Exploring Voltaire’s letters: between close and distant readings

La lettre au fil du temps: philosophe

‘La lettre au fil du temps: philosophe.’

A stamp produced by the French post office in 1998 celebrates the art of letter-writing by depicting Voltaire writing letters with both hands. It’s true that Voltaire wrote a lot of letters – over 15,000 are known, and more turn up all the time – but even so it’s not altogether clear that an ambidextrous letter-writer is someone we entirely want to trust. Voltaire’s correspondence is full of difficulties and traps, and faced by such a huge corpus, it is hard to know where to start. Without question, the Besterman ‘definitive’ edition (1968-77), digitised in Electronic Enlightenment, has had a major impact on Enlightenment scholarship: historians and literary critics make frequent use of these letters, but usually in an instrumental way, adducing a single passage in a letter as evidence in support of a date or an interpretation.

Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings (CUP, 2020)

Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings (CUP, 2020).

Voltaire’s letters can be notoriously ‘unreliable’, however, and they really need to be read and interpreted – like all his texts – as literary performances. Few critics have attempted to examine the corpus of the correspondence in its entirety and to understand it as a literary whole. In our new book, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings, we have experimented with a range of digital humanities methods, to explore to what extent they might help us identify new interpretative approaches to this extraordinary correspondence. The size of the corpus seems intimidating to the critic, but it is precisely this that makes these texts a perfect test-case for digital experimentation: we can ask questions that we would simply not have been able to ask before.

For example, we looked at the way Voltaire signs off his letters – and were surprised to find that only 13% of the letters are actually signed ‘Voltaire’; while over a third of the letters are signed with a single letter, ‘V’. Then Voltaire is hugely inventive in the way he plays with the rules of epistolary rhetoric, posing as a marmot to the duc de Choiseul. And if you want to know why in a letter (D18683) to D’Alembert he signs off ‘Miaou’, the answer is to be found in a fable by La Fontaine…

We studied Voltaire as a neologist. Critics have usually described Voltaire as an arch-classicist adhering rigorously to the norms of seventeenth-century French classicism. True, yet at the same time he is hugely energetic in coining new words, an aspect of his literary style that has been insufficiently studied. Here, corpus analysis tools, coupled with available lexicographical digital resources, allow us to consider Voltaire’s aesthetic of lexical innovation. In so doing, we can test the hypothesis that Voltaire uses the correspondence as a laboratory in which he can experiment with new formulations, ideas, and words – some of which then pass into his other works. We identified 30 words first coined by Voltaire in his letters, and another 36 words first used in his other works, many of which are then reused in the correspondence. Emmanuel Macron has encouraged the description of himself as a ‘président jupitérien’, so it’s good to discover that ‘jupitérien’ is one of the words first coined by Voltaire.

Voltaire letter

A letter in Voltaire’s hand, sent from the city of Colmar to François Louis Defresnay (D5612, dated 1753/1754).

A reader of Voltaire’s letters cannot fail to be struck by the frequency of his literary quotations. We explore this phenomenon through the use of sequence alignment algorithms – similar to those used in bioinformatics to sequence genetic data – to identify similar or shared passages. Using the ARTFL-Frantext database of French literature as a comparison dataset, we attempt a detailed quantification and description of French literary quotations contained in Voltaire’s correspondence. These citations, taken together, give us a more comprehensive understanding of Voltaire’s literary culture, and provide invaluable insights into his rhetoric of intertextuality. No surprise that he quotes most often the authors of ‘le siècle de Louis XIV’, though it was a surprise to find that Les Plaideurs is the Racine play most frequently cited. And who expected to find two quotations from poems by Fontenelle (neither of them identified in the Besterman edition)?! Quotations in Latin also abound in Voltaire’s letters, many of these drawn, predictably enough, from the famous poets he would have memorised at school, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid – but we also identified quotations, hitherto unidentified, from lesser poets, such as a passage from Manilius’ Astronomica. By examining as a group the correspondents who receive Latin quotations, and assigning to them social and intellectual categories established by colleagues working at Stanford, we were able to establish clear networks of Latin usage throughout the correspondence, and confirm a hunch about the gendered aspect of quotation in Latin: Voltaire uses Latin only to his élite correspondents, and even then, with notably rare exceptions such as Emilie Du Châtelet, only to men.

The woman on the left, a trainee pilot in the Brazilian air force, is an unwitting beneficiary of Voltaire’s bravura use of Latin quotation. The motto of the Air Force Academy is a stirring (if slightly macho) Latin quotation: ‘Macte animo, generose puer, sic itur ad astra’ (Congratulations, noble boy, this is the way to the stars). The quotation is one that Voltaire uses repeatedly in some dozen letters, and it is found later, for example in Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe. On closer investigation it turns out that this piece of Latin is an amalgam of quotations from Virgil and Statius – in effect, a piece of pure Voltairean invention.

In the end, Voltaire’s correspondence is undoubtedly one of his greatest literary masterpieces – but it is arguably one that only becomes fully legible through the use of digital resources and methods. Our intention with this book was to affirm the simple postulate that digital collections – whether comprised of letters, literary works, or historical documents – can, and should, enable multiple reading strategies and interpretative points of entry; both close and distant readings. As such, digital resources should continue to offer inroads to traditional critical practices while at the same time opening up new, unexplored avenues that take full advantage of the affordances of the digital. Not only can digital humanities methods help us ask traditional literary-critical questions in new ways – benefitting from economies of both scale and speed – but, as we show in the book, they can also generate new research questions from historical content; providing interpretive frameworks that would have been impossible in a pre-digital world.

The size and complexity of Voltaire’s correspondence make it an almost ideal corpus for testing the two dominant modes of (digital) literary analysis: on the one hand, ‘distant’ approaches to the corpus as a whole and its relationship to a larger literary culture; on the other, fine-grained analyses of individual letters and passages that serve to contextualise the particular in terms of the general, and vice versa. The core question at the heart of the book is thus one that remains largely untreated in the wider world: how can we use digital ‘reading’ methods – both close and distant – to explore and better understand a literary object as complex and multifaceted as Voltaire’s correspondence?

– Nicholas Cronk & Glenn Roe, Co-directors of the Voltaire Lab at the VF

Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings will be published in print and online at the end of October. The online version is available free of charge for two weeks to personal and institutional subscribers.

Digitizing the Enlightenment

As country after country has gone into COVID-19 lockdown, we have all had to learn to communicate, network, teach, study and relate online in ways unimaginable a few short years – or even months – ago. This phenomenon is just the latest stage in the information-technology revolution and part and parcel of the ongoing development of an increasingly digital society. This revolution has touched almost every aspect of our lives, from how we work, study, shop, relax and even make and maintain personal relationships. But it is also transforming scholarship and the way we conduct and communicate academic research. Thus, it is perhaps apt, and with consummate good timing, that Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment has chosen to subject tag our new volume as ‘History of Scholarship (Principally of Social Sciences and Humanities)’. Yet this is certainly not how we and our collaborators envisaged our project at the outset, nor can any single tag capture the content of our volume and its collaborative agenda in its entirety.

The Digitizing Enlightenment workshop logo

The Digitizing Enlightenment workshop logo, designed by Evan Casey for the Voltaire Foundation, featured on the cover of Digitizing Enlightenment.

Ironically, as we write, Digitizing Enlightenment is also a living movement – or at least a loose network of scholars who meet annually in pursuit of a common agenda. That agenda was born in a series of conversations that took place from 2010, culminating in Dan Edelstein’s post-panel suggestion at the American Historical Association conference at Montreal in April 2014 that we should hold periodic meetings between like-minded digital projects relating to the Enlightenment. The aim of these meetings would be to establish common conventions and digital standards, with a view to linking our resources and realising the enormous and still largely untapped potential of Linked Open Data. Those present for Dan’s suggestion – Simon Burrows, Jeff Ravel, Sean Takats and Dan himself – have all provided chapters for our book, but much of the energy behind Digitizing Enlightenment since has come from Glenn Roe, who Simon had first encountered a month earlier in Australia, where they had both recently taken up academic positions.

It was this fortuitous coincidence, underpinned by the fertile combination of Simon’s professorial establishment funds and Glenn’s energy, together with their mutual contact books, that led to Western Sydney University hosting the first Digitizing Enlightenment symposium in July 2016. Among the projects discussed there, and in our book, were large-scale treatments of Enlightenment correspondences, theatre attendance records, and textual corpora including the mid-eighteenth century Encyclopédie; bibliometric projects were presented on the production and dissemination of literature; together with presentations on mapping and data visualization growing out of these projects. The symposium was so well received that it has been an annual event ever since. It was held at Radboud University in Nijmegen (2017), Oxford (2018), Edinburgh (2019). In 2020, but for COVID-19, it would have been held in Montpellier.

It was not entirely by chance that such a project coalesced around the guiding notion of the ‘Enlightenment’. For the long eighteenth century has been blessed by a number of high-profile and long-established digital projects. These include ground-breaking commercial datasets such as Gale-Cengage’s Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), which features in several of our chapters, semi-commercial projects such as the Electronic Enlightenment and large academic consortiums such as the Franco-American ARTFL project. This made the Enlightenment a natural laboratory for exploring the possibilities and achievements of the Digital Humanities for transforming scholarship on a single historical era. Further, as our book emphases, our discussions built on a long tradition of digital innovation in eighteenth-century studies that can be traced back at least as far as the twin Livre et société dans la France du XVIIIe siècle volumes produced by a team led by François Furet in 1965 and 1970. It might further be added that our over-arching subject material lends itself to digital-historical analysis; the Enlightenment might after all be viewed as the long-run culmination of the intellectual turmoil and – as several contributors point out – information overload unleashed by a previous technological and communications revolution.

Digitizing Enlightenment is the July volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series

Digitizing Enlightenment is the July volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

With this in mind, then, we offer up Digitizing Enlightenment: Digital Humanities and the Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Studies as rather more than a contribution to the history of scholarship. Certainly, we have offered a sample of Digital Humanities c. 2016-2020, as it relates to the technologies available and their application to Enlightenment studies broadly construed. In addition, the first half of the book offers detailed accounts of the origins and development of key Enlightenment digital projects up until that point, accompanied by valuable and sometimes disarming insights on the dangers and delights of digital research from foremost practitioners in the field. These chapters, as well as some later contributions, are helping to reshape some dominant meta-narratives of the Enlightenment, not least by hinting simultaneously at the enduring aristocratic leadership of the French Enlightenment and the extent to which Enlightenment literary production and consumption was infused with religious content. However, our contributors also showcase other ways that Digital Humanities scholarship is in the process of changing the field through the transparency, methodological rigour, and collaborative imperatives that are necessary concomitants of this new kind of research. Finally, the book offers a collaborative roadmap for future digital research – at a moment where, as our final contributor, Sean Takats points out, the Enlightenment is fast losing its privileged position as the most richly digitized century of the modern era. As a corollary, we hope that our volume may be as useful to scholars of other periods as for Enlightenment scholars themselves.

– Simon Burrows (Western Sydney University) and Glenn Roe (Sorbonne University)

Simon Burrows and Glenn Roe are the editors of the July volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Digitizing Enlightenment: Digital Humanities and the Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Studies, which is the first book length survey of the impact of digital humanities on our understanding of a key historical period and paradigm.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Entretien avec Nicholas Cronk et Glenn Roe

For those who missed it first time round, here is another chance to read this interview with Glenn Roe and Nicholas Cronk, first published last January.

Glenn Roe et Nicholas Cronk.

Où en est la publication des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire par la Voltaire Foundation ?

Nicholas Cronk

La publication des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire a été initiée dans les années 1960 par Theodore Besterman, qui venait d’achever l’édition d’une gigantesque correspondance de plus de vingt mille lettres. L’édition qui faisait autorité, en quelque sorte, était encore celle de Beaumarchais et de Condorcet, imprimée à Kehl (1784-1785), car les grandes éditions qui lui ont succédé au XIXe siècle, comme celle de Louis Moland (1877-1885) reprennent son organisation. Seulement, l’édition de Kehl est un monument à la mémoire de Voltaire et pas véritablement une édition critique. L’organisation chronologique adoptée par la Voltaire Foundation, sur la proposition de William H. Barber, a permis d’éviter, par exemple, certains écueils de la classification générique, qui a du sens dans le cas des ouvrages d’histoire, des tragédies et de La Henriade, mais qui condamne les petits récits en prose, que Voltaire appelait « fusées volantes », à figurer dans des volumes de mélanges. L’édition de la Voltaire Foundation redonne leur place à ces textes, qui sont tout sauf mineurs. Elle sera achevée à l’automne 2020. Nous travaillons actuellement, par exemple, sur l’édition du Siècle de Louis XV, qui n’a jamais été éditée scientifiquement, sur les Annales de l’Empire et sur les Lettres philosophiques, qui sont plus connues.

Quel est le lien entre les Œuvres complètes et le projet Digital Voltaire ?

Nicholas Cronk

Publier les œuvres complètes de Voltaire est un travail infini et une édition numérique offre tout simplement l’avantage de pouvoir être régulièrement mise à jour, sans qu’il y ait besoin d’engager de moyens considérables. Le numérique permet également d’imaginer une édition critique d’un nouveau genre, moderne, proposant une articulation thématique, générique et chronologique inédite, enrichie d’hyperliens, de textes annexes, d’images, de musique (car les poèmes de Voltaire étaient parfois mis en musique), etc. Une telle édition doit faciliter le travail des chercheurs : Voltaire, par exemple, pratiquait volontiers l’auto-plagiat, c’est un phénomène qui n’a pas été beaucoup étudié et que les éditeurs de Kehl ont occulté, en supprimant des répétitions qu’ils trouvaient inconvenantes. Or, la redite, chez Voltaire, est une véritable esthétique, et à la fin de sa vie, il reprenait des textes de jeunesse, faisait parfois semblant d’ignorer qu’il en était lui-même l’auteur, les corrigeait, etc. Les techniques d’alignement de séquences permettent de redonner vie facilement à cet aspect de l’écriture. Le numérique doit également nous permettre de repenser des notions clefs de la pensée de Voltaire comme l’athéisme ou la tolérance, qui ont pu évoluer dans le temps, de comprendre son positionnement politique à telle ou telle période, ou les raisons de son intérêt pour la jurisprudence à la fin de sa vie. On doit pouvoir sortir de l’opposition traditionnelle un peu figée entre Voltaire et Rousseau et de la lecture monolithique proposée, par exemple, par le Dictionnaire philosophique en huit volumes de l’édition de Kehl, qui se compose de textes écrits sur quarante ou cinquante ans que Voltaire n’avait jamais pensé à regrouper.

Glenn Roe

Le label Digital Voltaire regroupe un ensemble de projets, qui ont vocation à enrichir, à terme, l’édition numérique des œuvres complètes de Voltaire. Le programme de recherche qui sera fixé courant 2019 prendra symboliquement le relais de l’édition papier. Les projets portent sur l’intertextualité, sur les autorités, sur les phénomènes de reprise, sur les principales thématiques de la pensée de Voltaire, que nous étudions en recourant à des techniques de topic modeling et de mapping. La vectorisation des mots doit nous permettre de mieux comprendre l’évolution de la pensée philosophique de Voltaire. Nous devrions parvenir à mettre au point une sorte d’ontologie ou de cartographie intellectuelle de Voltaire, qui pourra être comparée avec celle de Rousseau ou d’autres auteurs du XVIIIe siècle édités par la Voltaire Foundation.

Quelles sont les priorités de la Voltaire Foundation dans le domaine des humanités numériques ?

Nicholas Cronk

Il est certain qu’un projet numérique qui réunirait les œuvres et les correspondances de plusieurs auteurs du XVIIIe siècle, et qui ferait profiter aux chercheurs des possibilités nouvelles offertes par les outils développés au sein des humanités numériques, est loin d’être irréalisable et a de quoi séduire. Une expérience de ce genre a été réalisée sur les correspondances d’auteurs, dans les années 2000, au sein du projet Electronic Enlightenment, qui regroupe environ soixante-dix-mille lettres dans plusieurs langues. Mais je dirais que l’enjeu le plus immédiat, pour nous et pour Digital Voltaire, c’est aujourd’hui de parvenir à développer ce laboratoire de recherche en humanités numériques qui favorisera les recherches sur l’œuvre de Voltaire et sur sa réception, tout en restant l’édition critique de référence. Ce projet est un modèle de ce que nous pourrions faire à la Voltaire Foundation dans les années à venir, en collaboration avec d’autres partenaires comme la Sorbonne.

– Propos recueillis par Romain Jalabert

The above post is reblogged from Observatoire de la vie littéraire, where it first appeared on 26 January 2019.

Voltaire Lab: new digital research tools and resources

As part of our efforts to establish the Voltaire Lab as a virtual research centre, we are pleased to announce a major update of the TOUT Voltaire database and search interface, expanding links between the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project and several new research databases made available for the first time. Working in close collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago – one of the oldest and better known North American centres for digital humanities research – we have rebuilt the TOUT Voltaire database under PhiloLogic4, ARTFL’s next-generation search and corpus analysis engine.


New Search interface for TOUT Voltaire

PhiloLogic4 is a powerful research tool, allowing users to browse Voltaire’s works dynamically by date or title, along with further faceted browsing using the ‘title’, ‘year’ and ‘genre’, combined with word and phrase searching. Word searches are greatly improved for flexibility and ease of display and now include four primary result reports:

  • Concordance, or search terms in their context
  • KWIC, or line-by-line occurrences of the search term
  • Collocation, or terms that co-occur most with the search term
  • Time Series, which displays search term frequency over time

The new search interface will allow users to formulate complex queries with relatively little effort, following lines of enquiry in a dynamic fashion that moves from ‘distant reading’ scales of exploration to more fine-grained close textual analysis.


TOUT Voltaire search results

Also in collaboration with ARTFL, we have just released the Autumn Edition 2017 of the ARTFL Encyclopédie, a flagship digital humanities project that for the past almost twenty years has made available online the full text of Diderot and d’Alembert’s great philosophical dictionary. This new release offers many new features, functionalities and improvements. The powerful new faceted search and browse capabilities offered by PhiloLogic4 allow users better to leverage the organisational structure of the Encyclopédie – classes of knowledge, authors, headwords, volumes, and the like. Further it gives them the possibility of exploring the interesting alternatives offered by algorithmically or machine-generated classes. The collocation search generates word-clouds or word lists that are clickable to obtain concordances for any of the words immediately. Further improvements include new author attributions, various text corrections, and better cross-referencing functionality.


New ARTFL Encyclopédie interface

This release also contains a beautiful new set of high-resolution plate images. Clickable thumbnail versions lead to larger images that can be viewed in much greater detail than was previously possible.


New high resolution plate images, ‘Imprimerie en taille douce’


Close up of plate image

Thanks to the Voltaire Foundation, full biographies of the encyclopédistes are directly accessible from within the ARTFL Encyclopédie simply by clicking on the name of the author of any given article. This information is drawn directly from Frank and Serena Kafker’s The Encyclopedists as Individuals: A Biographical Dictionary of the Authors of the Encyclopédie (SVEC 257, 1988) – still the standard reference for biographical information on the Encyclopédie’s 139 contributors. Our hope is that this first experiment will demonstrate the value of linking digital resources openly in ways that can add value to existing projects and, at the same time, increase the visibility of the excellent works contained in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment back catalogue.

Finally, we have begun the work of establishing new research collections that will form the basis of the Voltaire Lab’s textual corpus. For example, working with files provided by Electronic Enlightenment, we have combined all of Voltaire’s correspondence with TOUT Voltaire. This new resource, which we are for the moment calling ‘TV2’, contains over 22,000 individual documents and more than 13 million words, making it one of the largest single-author databases available for research. Due to copyright restrictions in the correspondence files we cannot make the full dataset publicly available, however we are keen to allow researchers access to this important resource on a case-by-case basis. Students and scholars who wish to access the PhiloLogic4 build of TV2 should contact me here.

Glenn Roe

Tout Voltaire

09The Voltaire Foundation, in collaboration with the ARTFL Project, is pleased to announce the public release of the TOUT VOLTAIRE online database. This database brings you in fully searchable form all of Voltaire’s works apart from his correspondence (which can be searched separately, in Electronic Enlightenment).

Currently publishing the Complete works of Voltaire in print, the Voltaire Foundation plans to unveil an online version of this definitive critical edition sometime after 2018. In the meantime, this plain text version of Voltaire’s writings (without critical apparatus or notes) is the most reliable version available anywhere on the web.

The various editions used to establish this database are clearly marked: from the Voltaire Foundation’s own Complete works of Voltaire to nineteenth-century editions by Beuchot and Moland, among others.  When possible we have included Voltaire’s notes, as well as some textual variants depending on the edition. Pagination, however, is often not representative of the print editions, so if you wish to cite Voltaire for scholarly purposes, you should always consult the list of the best critical editions currently available.

The TOUT VOLTAIRE database is built using ARTFL’s full-text search and retrieval engine PhiloLogic, one of the oldest and most successful text analysis systems in the digital humanities. With a wide variety of search and reporting functions, users can look for words, groups of words, or phrases over Voltaire’s entire corpus, or in individual works (and even parts of works). Results can be displayed in context, as frequency reports (by title, by decade, etc.), or as a collocation table and word cloud.

Example searches could include:

For more search tips, please visit the PhiloLogic user manual.

This research tool is made available free of charge by the Voltaire Foundation (University of Oxford) and the ARTFL Project (University of Chicago). If you wish to make a contribution to our work, please contact the Voltaire Foundation.

Glenn Roe