Rousseau et Locke: Dialogues critiques

Rousseau et Locke: Dialogues critiques is the July volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This volume, edited by Johanna Lenne-Cornuez and Céline Spector, reassesses the legacy of Lockean thought in all areas of Rousseau’s philosophy. This blog post introduces readers to the edited collection by discussing its claims and ambitions.

Après le colloque que nous avons organisé en 2019 à Sorbonne Université, il nous a semblé qu’une réévaluation de l’héritage de la pensée de Locke chez Rousseau s’imposait. C’est ainsi que ce volume est né. Tout en établissant l’étendue de la dette de l’auteur d’Émile à l’égard du ‘sage Locke’ dans tous les domaines de sa philosophie (identité personnelle, épistémologie, médecine, morale, pédagogie, économie, politique), il met en lumière les usages des thèmes et concepts lockiens chez Rousseau – quitte à identifier les distorsions que le philosophe genevois fait subir à son prédécesseur.

D’un point de vue philosophique, la thèse défendue par ce volume est la suivante: Rousseau a élaboré un grand nombre de ses thèses majeures dans un dialogue critique avec la philosophie lockienne. Loin d’être une influence évanescente, les thèses de Locke sont une référence constante pour Rousseau, dont il fait un usage aussi varié que fécond. La philosophie rousseauiste institue une relation singulière à cette source: Locke n’est ni un pur adversaire avec lequel il s’agirait toujours de marquer son désaccord, ni une simple ressource textuelle à laquelle il se contenterait de puiser.

Locke est tantôt un allié, tantôt un adversaire, ou plutôt il n’est ni l’un ni l’autre: la philosophie lockienne est le lieu théorique et méthodologique au sein duquel Rousseau s’inscrit et l’origine des principes auxquels il fait subir de notables subversions. Il s’avère beaucoup plus proche de l’auteur de l’Essai et du second Traité que l’exégèse l’a longtemps perçu. Aussi l’ambition de ce volume est-elle de s’écarter de toute vision réductrice de l’héritage lockien pour redonner aux rapports entre les deux auteurs toute sa profondeur et ses nuances. Interroger l’héritage de Locke par-delà le prisme d’oppositions préconçues – naturalisme/historicisme; matérialisme/dualisme; libéralisme/républicanisme – donne son unité à ce volume.

L’usage de Locke par Rousseau pourrait n’être que stratégique. Derrière l’éloge de ‘l’illustre Locke’, l’auteur en exil brandirait une communauté de principes comme un bouclier défensif. À s’en tenir à un usage stratégique, la dette reconnue à l’égard de Locke ne serait qu’une illusion rétrospective. Cependant, par-delà un usage rhétorique, l’auteur du Contrat social fait de Locke un usage instituant une communauté de pensée contre une autre: celle des partisans de l’inaliénabilité de la liberté contre celle des ‘fauteurs du despotisme’ (CS, I, 5). Cet usage est notamment éclairé dans ce volume par les contributions de Céline Spector, à propos de l’inaliénabilité de la liberté, de Jean Terrel, au sujet de l’institution du contrat, et de Ludmilla Lorrain, sur le consentement à la représentation.

S’inscrivant de plain-pied dans les controverses de son temps, le philosophe fait également un usage polémique de la philosophie lockienne. Au-delà de la critique ouverte de Locke, le volume cherche alors à identifier le point de rupture. Cet usage polémique est notamment éclairé par les contributions de Anne Morvan, à propos du différend qui oppose Locke et Rousseau dans l’utilisation d’arguments naturalistes, et de Philippe Hamou au sujet des implications épistémiques et anthropologiques de leur différend sur la religion naturelle. À l’inverse, Rousseau peut apparaître comme un allié, comme le montre Claire Crignon, à propos de la critique des médecins.

Mais la critique ciblée de Locke peut masquer un héritage conséquent, notamment en matière de pédagogie. Cette dette est éclairée par les contributions de Christophe Martin, à propos de la révolution pédagogique initiée par Locke, et par Gabrielle Radica, à propos de l’usage éducatif des sanctions. Dans le même esprit, une filiation surprenante entre leurs philosophies morales doit être restituée. Par-delà la rupture que constitue la Profession de foi du Vicaire savoyard, c’est la cohérence du projet empiriste qui doit être interrogée. Le dialogue critique est éclairé par Louis Guerpillon, à propos du sens de l’empirisme en morale, et par Johanna Lenne‑Cornuez, au sujet de la définition du citoyen des temps modernes.

Portrait de J-J Rousseau, Ecole anglaise du XVIIIe siècle, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford.

Enfin, Rousseau utilise parfois Locke comme source d’arguments d’autorité. C’est le cas du fondement mémoriel de l’identité personnelle ou encore de l’inquiétude qui motive nos actions. Pourtant, cette reprise ne saurait être une simple redite. Concernant le rapport entre mémoire et identité subjective, l’appropriation de Locke par Rousseau est bien plus complexe qu’il n’y paraît. La question des mobiles de l’action suppose quant à elle de revenir à la lettre du texte de Locke. Ces usages qui n’échappent pas à la dimension critique seront éclairés par Stéphane Chauvier, à propos du fondement de l’identité personnelle, et par Christophe Litwin, à propos de l’inquiétude comme mobile de l’action.

Pour chacun de ces trois types d’usages – usage stratégique, usage polémique et appropriation critique –, le terme de dialogue critique est pertinent: dialogue, parce que Rousseau se situe d’abord sur un terrain qu’il identifie comme lockien, critique, parce que l’usage que Rousseau fait des idées lockiennes n’en est jamais la simple répétition. Aussi peut-on parler de critique menée de l’intérieur de thèses héritées de Locke.

– Johanna Lenne-Cornuez (Sorbonne University/CNRS) and Céline Spector (Sorbonne University)

This post first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

From the mundane to the philosophical: topic-modelling Voltaire and Rousseau’s correspondence

Voltaire and Rousseau’s correspondence are two fascinating collections which have perhaps not received the amount of attention than they could have due to the nature of these texts. Written over five decades, these letters cover a wide range of topics, from the mundanity of everyday concerns to more elaborate subjects. Getting an overall picture of these correspondences is challenging for the simple reader. This is unfortunate since these correspondences not only constitute a window into the private lives of Voltaire and Rousseau, or show an unfiltered expression of their respective thoughts, but they are also an example of the eclecticism professed by the philosophes. Fortunately modern computational techniques can truly help in providing an overview of the content of these letters and hopefully recapture – in a somewhat organized fashion – this very eclecticism of the Lumières. Thanks to the collaboration between the Voltaire Foundation and the ARTFL Project, I will be briefly discussing how topic-modeling can be used to draw an overall picture of these correspondences, and show a couple of examples of the model built from the Voltaire letters.

The ARTFL Project has long been engaged in exploring 18th-century discourses using digital tools, and the thematic opacity of correspondences is an ideal use-case for topic-modelling. This particular algorithm was designed to generate clusters of closely related words (or topics) by analyzing all word co-occurrences in any given corpus. Because these topics are extracted from their source texts, they are understood to describe the contents of the corpus analyzed. We recently released a topic-modelling browser – called TopoLogic – which was designed to explore such clusters of co-occurring words, and ran a preliminary experiment against the French Revolutionary Collection, the results of which can be seen here. When we built the topic models for Voltaire and Rousseau’s correspondences, we made sure to use the same parameters for both collections such that 40 topics (or discourses) were generated from each set of letters. We also only used those letters written by Voltaire on one side, and Rousseau on the other, hoping that we could perhaps make some comparisons between both models.

Let’s start with the Voltaire model, from which you can see the first 20 topics below:

As a first view into the topic model, the browser gives us the top 10 words for each topic, as well as their overall prevalence in the letters by Voltaire. From there we can further explore any topic, such as 16, which seems to map to Voltaire’s idea of the philosophe fighting against religious intolerance. By clicking on the topic however, we get an overview of how the topic is distributed in time, most important words in the topic, correlated topics, as well as documents where the topic is prominent (see figure below).

Let’s focus on several sections of this overview. We note below that the terms of philosophe and philosophie are weighted far more heavily than any other term, suggesting perhaps that all other words in this cluster may just constitute different characteristics of the philosophe in Voltaire’s eyes: religious concerns (prêtre, jésuite, religion, tolérance), attributes (honnête, sage), means of expression (article, livre).

All of these observations can of course be verified by exploring letters that feature topic 16 in a prominent way, which the browser does list. We can also see how the philosophe discourse evolves over the more than sixty years of Voltaire’s letters. Unsurprisingly, as his public involvement in religious affairs increases, the prevalence of such terms discussing his idea of the philosophe rises as well in his letters.

Among the discourses which tend to follow the same trend over time (see figure below), the cluster of terms related to justice (topic 5) stands out, once again showing that his public involvement is mirrored in his private correspondence. While these aspects are nothing really new, they provide for the prospective reader an easy way to find those letters that do discuss these topics.

Another interesting aspect of topic-modeling is that we can also examine the discursive make-up of any of Voltaire’s letters, and see if there are any other letters that share the same themes. Let’s examine Voltaire’s famous letter to Rousseau in which he mocks the citoyen de Genève’s position on the impact of literature in the second discourse (see figure below): ‘Les Lettres nourissent l’âme, la rectifient, la consolent’.

When we look at topical representation of this letter in the browser, we can note that the model found a number of different topics within this letter, which when combined do provide an overview of its contents. In it, Voltaire discusses – with much irony – his own experience as a writer (topic 33), which includes his role as historiographe du roi (topic 36), as well as the many controversies he was involved in (topic 10). He sarcastically laments the fact that he cannot afford to live with savages in a distant land (topic 25) because his health requires him to be treated by a doctor (topic 26 and 35). And as a whole, he defends the role of literature as a positive good for man (topic 0). Of course, one could argue that this topical structure is approximate, prone to discussion, and this is certainly true. However, this approximation is now available for all 15,000 letters, which then allows the computer to compare and group letters by this very topical structure. In this same document view, we can see documents which share a similar mixture of topics, such as a letter to Ivan Shuvalov from 1757 where Voltaire discusses his writing of history while displaying a very keen concern for the perception and impact of his writing, or another to D’Alembert where he complains about his bad health while stressing the importance of writing about useful things (‘il y avait cent choses utiles à dire qu’on n’a point dittes encore’).

One last aspect of the topic model is to examine the individual uses of words and the different contexts in which they are used. If we look at the uses of écrivain in the correspondences (see figure below), we can see how that its uses span across different types of discourses related to reason, the writing of history, or the public role of the writer. Looking at the actual word associations, we also note potentially interesting patterns. In the case of words that share similar topic distributions (used with a similar mix of discourses), a group of terms related to ignorance seems to dominate: fausseté, mensonge, ignorance, vérité, erreur, fable… This may allude to a sense of mission in Voltaire’s writings: to correct inaccuracies, to dispel lies, to reestablish the truth in the face of ignorance. Looking this time at words that tend to co-occur with écrivain, we get a very different picture, with terms that relate more to the activity of writing and the product of that writing. These two views on word associations do not contradict one another, but suggest different ways of thinking of the role of the écrivain as depicted in Voltaire’s letters.

To finish, let’s take a look at the topic model of Rousseau’s correspondence, and in particular how we can relate it to that of Voltaire. A quick overview of the first 20 topics in Rousseau’s letters reveals a similar – yet distinct – picture of the topical composition of his correspondence (see figure below).

Using the browser, we could track down Rousseau’s response to Voltaire’s criticism of the second discourse, and see if other letters discuss similar themes. This is all within the scope of this browser. For the sake of brevity however, and to show how topic models can be used to run comparative experiments, we wanted to focus on Rousseau’s usage of the word écrivain in order to see if and how it differed from what was suggested in the Voltaire model. As we can see below, Rousseau tends to use the term in similar contexts: the écrivain is invoked first and foremost as a conveyor of truth. But looking more closely at word associations, a distinctive pattern does emerge: such terms as lâche, haine, hypocrite, acharnement, or jalousie highlight a well-known trait of Rousseau, his paranoia in the face of his success as a writer. Clicking on any these words in the browser would allow a researcher to track down the individual uses of these terms as they relate to écrivain, and find those letters to discuss his persecution complex.

To conclude, we are well aware that any analysis provided here is purely built on the patterns derived from the topic models, and as such, remain unproven until verified by a close reading of the letters themselves. However, we hope to have shown how using a tool such as topic modeling can potentially provide new insights into the correspondences of Voltaire and Rousseau, or at the very least offer better guidance to scholars working on these two incredibly rich collections.

Clovis Gladstone

This article was first published in the Café Lumières blog in June 2020.

Clovis Gladstone’s Rousseau et le matérialisme appeared in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment 2020:8.

 

‘La nouvelle édition de ces choses merveilleuses’

Page de titre de notre texte de base

Page de titre de notre texte de base.

Passage de la mer Rouge à pied sec, arrêt du Soleil et de la Lune, résurrection des morts, transformation de la farine en anguilles, refus de s’agenouiller devant le Consistoire de Genève, habitude d’entendre le contraire de ce qui est dit et écrit, tours de passe-passe de Rousseau à Venise: tel est l’assemblage – hétéroclite, on en conviendra – de ‘miracles’ – ou prétendus tels – dont Voltaire se gausse en les réunissant au sein de cette Collection des lettres sur les miracles. Ecrites à Genève, et à Neufchâtel. L’ouvrage est loin d’avoir la rigueur d’un quelconque traité susceptible de répondre aux très sérieuses Considérations sur les miracles de l’Evangile pour répondre aux difficultés de M. J.-J. Rousseau (1765) publiées par le pasteur David Claparède, qui fournissent le prétexte de la première intervention de Voltaire, dans une feuille volante intitulée Questions sur les miracles, à M. le professeur Cl……. par un proposant. Loin même d’être, dans sa forme finale, le fruit d’un projet concerté dès l’origine: d’Autres questions, puis une Troisième Lettre paraissent peu après, et l’affaire aurait pu en rester là. Mais lorsque John Turberville Needham publie une Réponse au ‘proposant’, son intervention met le feu aux poudres, et la présence à Genève du prêtre catholique irlandais – présenté, pour l’occasion, comme un jésuite anglais – suscite encore un rapprochement avec les derniers épisodes des troubles qui agitent alors la République (affaire Covelle, poursuites contre Rousseau), relançant successivement l’activité de l’artillerie de Ferney: à jets continus, ce sont au total vingt Lettres qui se succèdent, entre mi-juillet 1765 et janvier 1766; elles seront au mois de mai réunies au sein d’un recueil, qui comporte aussi les réponses de l’adversaire, dûment annotées, le tout entrelardé de paratextes.

Aux circonstances singulières qui conduisent à la publication de la Collection s’ajoute ultérieurement une histoire éditoriale complexe: d’abord dans les Nouveaux Mélanges (voir OCV, t.60A), puis dans les collections dites ‘complètes’ des Œuvres de Voltaire, à commencer par l’‘encadrée’, le recueil est défait, ramené à la succession des Lettres originales à l’exception de l’une d’entre elles, réutilisée entre-temps dans les Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. Si les éditeurs de Kehl cherchent à retrouver l’esprit du recueil, ils ne réintroduisent les textes de l’adversaire, jugés excessivement ennuyeux, que sous la forme d’extraits. Les choix qui ont conduit à éditer, dans ce volume des OCV, l’intégralité de la Collection, accomplissent ainsi – osons le mot – une résurrection: le texte, connu par la suite sous le titre trompeur de Questions sur les miracles, n’a pas été donné à lire sous cette forme depuis plus de 250 ans. C’est l’occasion de procéder à une redécouverte qui permet d’apprécier, dans leur diversité, les expérimentations que Voltaire y effectue.

Expérimentation, d’abord, dans la construction a posteriori d’un recueil, organisé autour d’une fiction minimale qui s’invente au fil des Lettres, à l’intérieur d’un cadre narratif et discursif faisant intervenir une foule de personnages, les uns fictifs, proches des marionnettes qui peuplent l’univers des contes, les autres réels mais largement fictionnalisés, chacun doté d’une voix propre: de quoi orchestrer un beau raffut par la mise en place d’une structure polyphonique qui tient à la fois – sans se réduire à l’une de ces composantes – du micro roman épistolaire, du brûlot polémique et du pamphlet.

Expérimentation aussi dans la diversification de modes d’écriture pamphlétaire, même si l’on retrouve à l’occasion les recettes éprouvées d’une entreprise visant à faire taire l’adversaire en l’accablant de ridicules et en discréditant son discours: Needham se prétend-il imprudemment ‘qualifié par ses recherches’ pour faire pièce aux objections des incrédules? Il s’agira conjointement de disqualifier sa personne et ses interventions dans l’espace public: le pseudo-savant qui a cru observer, au cours d’expériences mal conduites sur de la farine de blé ergoté délayée dans de l’eau, sa ‘transformation’ – voire sa ‘transfiguration’ – en ‘anguilles’, lui-même ‘jésuite transfiguré’, devient le ‘jésuite des anguilles’, enfin l’‘anguillard’, que son ‘galimatias’ désigne comme un homme à enfermer. Il est même condamné ‘à faire amende honorable une anguille à la main’ avant d’être ‘lapidé’: il ne s’agit cependant que d’une exécution de papier, et le coupable finit d’ailleurs par s’échapper. Jean-Jacques aussi réchappe à sa propre lapidation, mais l’affaire est plus sérieuse.

Expérimentation encore, à l’occasion de l’évocation des troubles qui affectent Genève, d’une pensée politique dont les éléments se mettent en place: les tirades enflammées d’un Covelle, doté d’une éloquence dont l’original était sans doute incapable, sur la liberté, qui est tout à la fois liberté de penser et accomplissement d’une libération du ‘despotisme presbytéral’, préludent aux textes ultérieurs sur les affaires genevoises (Idées républicaines, OCV, t.60B), avant l’ultime réécriture, en mode burlesque, des tribulations qui agitent la ‘parvulissime’ dans La Guerre civile de Genève (t.63A).

Page 150 de notre texte de base

‘Je n’aime l’érudition que quand elle est un peu égayée.’ (Page 150 de notre texte de base.)

C’est dire que la Collection a enfin valeur de jalon dans une réflexion continue, ce que vérifie l’examen de celle, conduite en pointillés, sur la question des miracles: au niveau des arguments avancés comme des sources qui leur servent de fondement, les Lettres sur les miracles font aussi office de laboratoire dans l’élaboration de l’arsenal polémique qui nourrit en parallèle les rééditions contemporaines du Dictionnaire philosophique (OCV, t.35-36) ainsi que, par la suite, les opuscules antichrétiens des années 1766-1767, en particulier L’Examen important de milord Bolingbroke (t.62), Le Dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers (t.63A), jusqu’aux Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, dont une section de l’article ‘Miracles’ (t.42B) est ‘tirée d’une lettre déjà imprimée’ – la Douzième de la Collection, probablement après un essai infructueux de remaniement de la Première, fourni en Annexe de l’édition.

La Collection des lettres sur les miracles est en somme un objet étrange et foisonnant, à même de susciter la curiosité de quiconque s’intéresse à l’histoire éditoriale des ouvrages de Voltaire et à l’élaboration d’une manière et d’un positionnement polémiques sur des questions idéologiques importantes. Voltaire invente ici une formule appelée à une certaine fortune dans les productions tardives du ‘patriarche’, dont le fin mot est réservé au pseudo M. Beaudinet, ‘citoyen de Neufchâtel’: ‘Je n’aime l’érudition que quand elle est un peu égayée.’

– Olivier Ferret

D’Éon vs Rousseau: Gender, slavery and the unique self

Chevalier d'Eon

Portrait of Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont by Thomas Stewart (1792), at the National Portrait Gallery.

Virtually everything about the Chevalier d’Éon’s life was extraordinary. D’Éon had a decorated career as a dragoon, diplomat, spy for the French king and rumoured double agent, not to mention being a prolific author, proto-feminist, freemason, international celebrity and exceptional fencer.[1] However, far more remarkable than all of this is the fact that, aged forty-nine, the Chevalier began a new life as a woman. After rumours began to circulate in 1770, d’Éon, who was living in England at the time, was subsequently taken to court, declared a woman and required to adopt female dress for the last thirty-two years of their life. Upon death, the body was examined and described as ‘unambiguously male’.[2] The reasons for d’Éon’s acceptance of a female identity instead of proving otherwise have been guessed at but never fully explained. Suggestions have ranged from the purely practical, such as the avoidance of assassination, to the deeply personal, such as the hypothesis that d’Éon was an example of a transgender individual avant la lettre.[3]

In around 1785, d’Éon wrote The Maiden of Tonnerre as an attempt to justify their decisions and lifestyle.[4] The intention was for this work to be translated into English and published, but the translation was not completed and the work remained unpublished until 2001. No French edition is currently available. The Maiden of Tonnerre contains a collection of semi-truths, letters, historical fiction and outright fibs claiming to be autobiographical, all tailored to maintain d’Éon’s self-image as a woman who lived as a man for the first forty-nine years of her life. Given this authorial intent, the literary persona of the Chevalière d’Éon, as portrayed in The Maiden of Tonnerre, will accordingly be referred to as ‘she/her’, while the real-life Chevalier d’Éon will continue to be referred to using the gender-neutral pronouns ‘they/their’.

Due to its hybrid nature, The Maiden of Tonnerre is something of a trans-genre text, existing at the crossroads of several literary genres just as its author existed at the crossroads of traditional sex and gender identities. In this work, the Chevalière outlines a conception of gender that is radically different from the stringent gender roles that are so often cited as typical of the late eighteenth century, attesting to a deep-seated psychological component to her embodied situation:

‘I had two personalities. My mind tended toward tranquillity, solitude, and study. Prudence told me that this was the wisest and simplest way to shield myself, but my heart loved the clash of weapons and the display of all the military drills. Unable to consult either man or woman, I consulted God and the Devil and, so as not to fall into the water, I jumped into the fire.’ (p.7)

D’Éon locates stereotypical eighteenth-century masculine and feminine gender roles as central to her anguish. Her hybrid psychological gender identity made up of ‘two personalities’ cannot bring itself to conform to the rigid gender roles society expects of a woman. The real-life d’Éon is likely to have encountered these gender roles as expressed in the famed writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of whom they were an avid follower. However, as will become clear, the two authors vehemently disagreed on key issues surrounding gender.

Engravings of the Chevalier and Chevalière d’Éon

Engravings of the Chevalier and Chevalière d’Éon by Jean-Baptiste Bradel (c. 1780) which demonstrate a very different interpretation of gender ambiguity, namely that d’Éon is presented as two different people.

To exemplify this, we might recall Rousseau’s declarations in Émile that the ideal woman is ‘modeste en apparence’ and that ‘la femme est faite pour plaire et pour être subjuguée’.[5] Every time the Chevalière is reprimanded by others, it is for violating this strict Rousseauian conception of femininity, whether it be by wearing her dragoon uniform in public or initially refusing to wear dresses when ordered to by the king (p.28-32). It is telling that d’Éon associates her modest, traditionally feminine side with her ‘mind’, while her traditionally masculine military side is associated with her ‘heart’. Not only does d’Éon mingle gender roles, she completely inverts them, reversing the accepted eighteenth-century dichotomy of ‘à l’homme le rationnel, à la femme la sensibilité’.[6]

Indeed, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘god’ and ‘devil’, ‘water’ and ‘fire’ all refer to binary logic founded on the principle of ‘either/or’, which, as d’Éon makes clear, offers no consolation to her unique gendered condition. This claim to singularity resembles Rousseau’s very own conception of the unique self as put forward in his autobiography, the Confessions.[7] It is d’Éon’s singularly non-conforming ‘style of life’ and ‘personality’ that causes her to resent the assimilation imposed upon her when the ladies of the court ‘have [her] play all the roles necessary to teach [her] how to behave at all times like an important noblewoman’ (p.17). This coerced assimilation is comparable to how transgender people are often compelled to ‘pass’ (either fully masculinise or fully feminise their appearance) to minimise their visibility by conforming to modern social custom. Likewise, d’Éon describes these predetermined roles as ‘chains’ and ‘shackles’ and likens the conformity they demand to ‘slavery’, desperately pleading, ‘Just leave me as I am’ (p.74, 62). In using this lexis, d’Éon draws upon yet another Rousseauian concept: the opposition between free will and slavery laid out in Du Contrat social. Thus, d’Éon appropriates two key notions found in Rousseau’s autobiographical and political writings to argue against Jean-Jacques (and much of eighteenth-century French society) on the topic of predetermined, fixed gender roles.

The translated edition of d’Éon’s ‘autobiography’

The translated edition of d’Éon’s ‘autobiography’, The Maiden of Tonnerre: The Vicissitudes of the Chevalier and the Chevalière d’Éon, by Roland A. Champagne, Nina Ekstein and Gary Kates (London, 2001).

The Chevalière instead affirms that, as a unique individual, she should be left to interpret gender in her own unique way. D’Éon consequently lives as a woman but performs some aspects of masculinity rather than aligning herself neatly with one or the other. So, if the one concrete conclusion we arrive at is the apparent lack of any concrete conclusion, then it is worth emphasising how d’Éon’s primary concern is pointing out the flaws in neat binary logic that operates with categories like man or woman, real or fake, body or mind and sex or gender. D’Éon’s text reminds us that the Enlightenment should be viewed as an ongoing project rather than an arrogant quest for definitive answers, and, in the absence of sufficient understanding of a phenomenon, it is vital to avoid pre-emptively passing judgement.

This sentiment of not rushing to conclusions when faced with something we do not fully understand is as relevant today as it was in the late eighteenth century. Transgender academics such as Stephen Whittle, Susan Stryker and Eli Clare continue to argue against the compulsion to pathologise trans bodies as undesirably defective. Furthermore, trans individuals are increasingly questioning whether the deeply held self-understandings they have can be entirely due to nurture and environment, denouncing the ‘diarrhoea of theories’ used to conveniently explain away their identity.[8] As The Maiden of Tonnerre makes abundantly clear, these ideas about gender identity are not some passing fad that sprung up in the 1990s. They have, in fact, been around for centuries, and remarkably similar arguments are made, and ignored, in each instance. Now, as before, without stable facts to work with, we must refrain from hastily jumping to conclusions: we begin to question what we think we know, recalling a humbler side to the Enlightenment that is often forgotten.

– Sam Bailey

[1] For a biography of d’Éon, see Gary Kates, Monsieur d’Éon is a Woman: a tale of political intrigue and sexual masquerade (London, 2001).

[2] Roland A. Champagne, Nina Ekstein and Gary Kates trans. and eds., The Maiden of Tonnerre: The Vicissitudes of the Chevalier and the Chevalière d’Éon (London, 2001), p. xvi. All page numbers in our blog post refer to this edition.

[3] These and many other theories are explored in The Chevalier d’Éon and his Worlds: Gender, Espionage and Politics in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Simon Burrows, Jonathan Conlin, Russell Goulbourne, Valerie Mainz (London, 2010).

[4] Tonnerre is d’Éon’s place of birth. The title is an adaptation of la pucelle d’Orléans, Joan of Arc’s French nickname.

[5] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Œuvres complètes de J.-J. Rousseau, vol. 2 (Paris, 1852), p. 659, p. 632.

[6] Raymond Trousson, ‘Préface’, in Romans de femmes du XVIIe siècle, ed. Trousson (Paris, 1996), pp. I-XXXIII (p. XV).

[7] For more on this, see Anna Clarke, ‘The Chevalier d’Éon, Rousseau, and New Ideas of Gender, Sex and the Self in the Late Eighteenth Century’, in The Chevalier d’Éon, eds. Burrows et al, pp. 187-200.

[8] Stephen Whittle, ‘Foreword’, in The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. Whittle and Stryker (London, 2006), pp. i-xvi (p. xiii).

Rousseau and the perils of public address

In December 1776, the Courrier d’Avignon reported a curious incident in Ménilmontant: a supposedly mortal collision between the famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and…a great dane.

‘Rousseau, qui se promène souvent seul à la campagne, a été renversé il y a quelques jours par un de ces chiens Danois qui précèdent les equipages lestes: on dit qu’il est très malade de cette chute, et on ne peut trop deplorer son sort d’avoir été écrasé par des chiens.’ (no.97, December 3, 1776, p.4).

‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau est mort des suites de sa chute. Il a vécu pauvre, il est mort misérablement; et la singularité de sa destinée  l’a accompagné jusqu’au tombeau.’ (no.102, December 20, 1776, p.4).

Jean Jacques François Le Barbier, Brusselles (éd. de Londres), 1783, ‘Rousseau apportant le manuscrit des “Dialogues” à Notre-Dame de Paris’. Illustration pour Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques dans Œuvres de J.-J. Rousseau.

Rousseau, as we know, died a few years later in 1778 – the event in Ménilmontant leaving him not mortally injured, but with a face bruised and beaten. The mistaken reports in the Courrier d’Avignon prompted his Rêveries critical assessment of eighteenth-century public culture and, in particular, the social and discursive mechanisms that permitted the spread of rumours, an absence of fact-checking, and sensationalism. It was hardly, however, his first diagnosis of ‘fake news’.

In the very era when the postal system and print culture brought people together in ‘imagined communities’, Rousseau worried deeply about the risks of dead letters. Although Rousseau’s colleague, Diderot, was convinced that the two most important technological developments in early modern Europe were the postal system and print culture (enthusing to his sculptor friend Falconet, ‘Il y a deux grandes inventions: la poste qui porte en six semaines une découverte de l’équateur au pôle, et l’imprimerie qui la fixe à jamais’), Rousseau was much more leery of the new information age.

A critical assessment of the Enlightenment’s faith in transparent communication must attune itself to the persistent traces of ancient modes of rhetoric: the traditions of doublespeak and dog-whistle politics. Rousseau, sensitive to the tensions between an esoteric, libertine tradition of communication and an intellectual climate of social progressivism, frames the debate in a series of vexed questions: for whom should I be writing? what is a public and what can it do? Despairing over the absence of any true ‘ami de la vérité’, Rousseau heads to Notre Dame cathedral to deposit, in a famous acte manqué, a copy of Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques on the altar of the church.

‘En entrant, mes yeux furent frappés d’une grille que je n’avois jamais remarquée et qui séparoit de la nef la partie des bas-cotés qui entoure le Chœur. Les portes de cette grille étoient fermées, de sorte que cette partie des bas-cotés dont je viens de parler étoit vuide & qu’il m’étoit impossible d’y pénétrer. Au moment où j’apperçus cette grille je fus saisi d’un vertige comme un homme qui tombe en apoplexie, et ce vertige fut suivi d’un bouleversement dans tout mon être, tel que je ne me souviens pas d’en avoir éprouvé jamais un pareil. L’Eglise me parut avoir tellement changé de face que doutant si j’étois bien dans Notre-Dame, je cherchois avec effort à me reconnoître et à mieux discerner ce que je voyois. Depuis trente six ans que je suis à Paris, j’étois venu fort souvent et en divers tems à Notre Dame; j’avois toujours vu le passage autour du Chœur ouvert et libre, et je n’y avois même jamais remarqué ni grille ni porte autant qu’il put m’en souvenir.’ (‘Histoire du précédent écrit’, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, OC, t.1, p. 980).

He notes that in spite of having been in the church scores of times, he had failed to notice the barrier blocking access to the altar. The unpredictability of the reading public – indeed, the plurality of publics and their occasionally indeterminate nature – makes literary reception a chancy affair. In the very loud and crowded market of ideas of the French Enlightenment, the rhetorical gesture of address underscored the vulnerability and power of the modern writer. In my study, Jean-Jacques Rousseau face au public: problèmes d’identité, I explore the vagaries of public communication during the Enlightenment and the dialectical tensions between shadow and illumination, musicality and transparency.

As an insider of the Encyclopédie project turned outsider, Rousseau understood the complexities of the new social and ethical demands placed on the philosophes in a way that is fundamentally different from his contemporaries. By noting the unpredictability and inconsistencies of systems of public address (with readers and spectators moved alternatively by emotions, reason, flows of information, and the major works of a few key power players), Rousseau proposes alternative ways of thinking about communication and the circulation of information. He places value on economies of speech that include silence, babil (babbling), laconism, and musicality – modes of communication that contest conventional modalities of rationality and social exchange. His work is thus an invitation to consider the precarity of address within modern social life and, consequently, the politics of truth at stake in symbolic exchange.

Masano Yamashita

My name is nobody

Debate on authorship, pseudonymity and anonymity has been rife in the past few days in the wake of the revelation of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s true identity. What is surprising, one could argue, is that the best-selling author’s unmasking took so long. How could a hugely popular writer hope to keep her identity secret in a celebrity-obsessed age when anonymous publishing is very much the exception?

But it was not always so. The expectations of the reading public were very different in eighteenth-century Europe, a time when most books were published without any mention of their author’s name at all. The cover of anonymity allowed for levels of audacity, risk-taking and mischief that would have been unthinkable otherwise, but it also made possible a fair amount of what we would nowadays call “trolling”.

Voltaire and Rousseau reconciled at last, according to this print (Gallica)

An unlikely pairing (Image Gallica, 1794-1799, artist unknown)

As observed in an earlier post on this blog, Voltaire was not averse to criticising and mocking his enemies under assumed names (in that particular instance playfully borrowing the identity of his devoted secretary, Jean-Louis Wagnière). One would be hard pressed to find the slightest trace of playfulness in the Sentiment des citoyens though.[1] This short pamphlet was published anonymously in December 1764 and its target was none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had published – very much under his own name – the Lettres écrites de la montagne only a few weeks earlier.

In the ‘Lettre cinquième’ of his book, Rousseau had advised Voltaire to put into practice that “spirit of tolerance that he preaches relentlessly” and, crucially, he had outed the philosophe as the author of the fiercely anti-Christian Sermon des cinquante, which had been published anonymously in 1752. Voltaire did not take kindly to what he saw as an unforgivable act of treachery, and retaliated with the scathing Sentiment des citoyens, an excoriating ad hominem attack in which he revealed, among other things, that Rousseau had abandoned his children. This attack ended with what can be construed as an exhortation to the Genevan authorities to eliminate Rousseau physically for sowing the seeds of sedition in the Republic.

Just as he always denied being the author of the Sermon des cinquante, Voltaire never admitted to having penned the Sentiment des citoyens, and he was very much amused by Rousseau’s misattribution of the pamphlet to Jacob Vernes, which he did his best to propagate. Central to this episode was of course the deep detestation that the two men had for each other, arising from very different temperaments and worldviews; but, as Jean Sgard explains in his preface to volume 58 of the Complete Works of Voltaire, the fundamentally irreconcilable conceptions of authorship held by the two writers inevitably placed them on a collision course.

Georges Pilard

[1] Just published in volume 58 of the Complete Works of Voltaire.

Mirabeau meets Voltaire and Rousseau in the underworld

‘Mais le voilà donc ce prétendu égoïste, cet homme dur, cet impitoyable misanthrope, que ses lâches ennemis déchirent plus que jamais après sa mort!’ (Mirabeau to Marie Thérèse Sophie Richard de Ruffey, marquise de Monnier, on the subject of Rousseau’s acts of kindness during his lifetime.)[1]

Today marks the 223rd anniversary of the death of Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, the comte de Mirabeau. A courter of controversy, Mirabeau is famous for being a nobleman who joined the third estate for the Estates General and became rapidly popular thanks to his oratory skills.[2] He died of a suspected inflammation of the diaphragm, on 2 April 1791, though some did question the rapidity of the illness and wondered if he had been poisoned.[3] Other than for a few individuals, such as Marat, who publicly rejoiced at his passing, Mirabeau’s death seems to have been overall a source of sorrow, provoking numerous displays of affection including prints and plays.

The representation of Mirabeau’s post-life is part of a wider Revolutionary fascination for the gathering of historical characters in the afterlife. Indeed, it was viewed by artists as an opportunity to create imaginary encounters between characters of different eras, stage reconciliations or provide a commentary on the situation in France. One can see an example of this in Olympe de Gouges’s rapidly penned Mirabeau aux Champs-Elysées, first performed on 15 April 1791, in which Rousseau and Voltaire are quick to shake hands and forgive each other in their joy at the French Revolution: ‘tu as posé les premières bases de tout ce qui s’est opéré de grand et d’utile en France’ exclaims Rousseau. [4]

Prints were more likely to pick either Voltaire or Rousseau as the object of Mirabeau’s affection. For instance, in ‘Le Voile est tombé’, Voltaire can state ‘Mon triomphe est beau sans doute, puisque il est l’ouvrage des Français’, while the archbishop of Paris, Christophe de Beaumont, burns in the background.

Mirabeau_Voltaire

Le Voile est tombé (source: French Revolution Digital Archive)

However, in ‘Mirabeau arrive aux Champs-Elysées’, it is to Rousseau that Mirabeau presents a charte constitutionelle as if it were ‘un de ses ouvrages’, involving him in the Revolution.

Mirabeau_Champs_Elysees2

These representations are not just a homage to Mirabeau, but also an occasion to revisit the historical thinkers who influenced Revolutionary ideology and to place Mirabeau within this illustrious canon. [5]

While only a few of these representations can be deemed negative, this was all to change with the discovery of the armoire de fer, a secret cupboard in the Tuileries which contained compromising correspondence, in November 1792. Even after death, there is no rest for the depicted.

Mirabeau_apparition

Apparition de l’ombre de Mirabeau (source: French Revolution Digital Archive)

Claire Trévien

[1] Correspondance complète de Jean Jacques Rousseau, ed. R. A. Leigh et al., 52 vol. (Oxford, 1965-1998), vol.44, p.187-91, letter 7686 (27 March 1780).

[2] John R. Neill and Charles F. Warwick, Mirabeau and the French Revolution (Chicago, 2005), p.431.

[3] Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, Journal de la maladie et de la mort d’Honoré-Gabriel-Victor Riquetti Mirabeau, ed. Carmela Ferrandes (Bari, 1996), p.137.

[4] Mirabeau aux Champs-Elysées, p.6. Numerous plays and prints of the period staged what their creators saw as a long overdue reconciliation between the two feuding philosophes. See Ling-Ling Sheu, Voltaire et Rousseau dans le théâtre de la Révolution française (1789-1799) (Brussels, 2005).

[5] I will be exploring these representations in greater detail in an article, ‘Théâtre de l’ombre: visions of afterlife in prints of the French Revolution’, in Shadows of the Enlightenment: chiaroscuro in Early-Modern France and Italy, a study in analogy and metaphorology, a special issue of Journal of eighteenth-century studies,ed. Mark Darlow and Marion Lafouge (forthcoming).

Happy birthday Denis Diderot! A letter from Marian Hobson

Cher Denis Diderot, happy 300th birthday!

birthdaydiderotWherever you are – for you were a non-believer all your life, and the afterlife you looked forward to was one of infinitely recyclable molecules living on in ever new combinations. A process possibly without end, spinning out like the cosmos itself, but one that was sufficiently complex to leave room for human intervention.

So for 20 years of your life and against the odds you edited the Encyclopédie, aiming to consolidate what was known about agriculture, art, theology, trade – a raft of subjects that probably no other European would have dared bring together – in order that intervention might improve, and wrongs in human systems and thought be at least discussed, and if possible righted.

However, that changing of opinions and recycling of molecules requires energy – that you also knew. In deliciously underhanded ways you developed yours by writing: for instance, dialogues of speculative science prefiguring cloning (Le Rêve de D’Alembert); a hilarious novel (Jacques le fataliste), anticipating le nouveau roman of the 1950s and 1960s, one presenting a net of random co-occurrences out of which events develop in a way that mimics freedom. Your novel forms a net which thus appears as the paradoxical opposite of a linear, causal determinism, and from it we see that these apparent opposites take in each other’s philosophical washing: What is it to be free? Not to be determined. To be determined? Not to be free.

Notably kind, you yet had a talent for comedy and satire which you hid in unpublished work, the satire in the form of a novel-cum-dialogue (Le Neveu de Rameau). Unlike your friend-enemy Rousseau, you are not in the Panthéon; your work doesn’t appear as a set philosophical text in that summum of your country’s education ladder, the written exam of the agrégation en philosophie.DiderotJacquesFatalist01

Your accolades are less of the Establishment, are more wayward and in the future – you will be translated by Goethe, be used as a springboard towards the dialectic by Hegel, and Freud will be glad to find in you a past confirmation of his Oedipus complex. Your work ghosting for others (the atheist d’Holbach), commenting on and round them (Helvétius and the believer Hemsterhuis) and collaborating namelessly on a history of colonialisms (L’histoire des Deux-Indes) has gently rocked beliefs without inculcating dogma or doctrine. We can’t turn you into a memorial, not yet anyway, there is too much to do. You make us keep on thinking. Thank you for all this, cher Denis Diderot!

-Marian Hobson