Micromégas: objet littéraire non identifié

Le tome 20c des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, tout juste sorti des presses, comprend entre autres textes le conte philosophique Micromégas. Publié en 1751 mais mûri pendant de longues années (ses origines remontent à ‘une fadaise philosophique’ à propos d’un certain ‘baron de Gangan’ que Voltaire avait envoyé au futur Frédéric II de Prusse en juin 1739), c’est incontestablement l’un des chefs-d’œuvre de Voltaire, dont le succès ne s’est jamais démenti depuis sa publication (l’astronome américain Carl Sagan le cite même comme l’une de ses sources d’inspiration).

Citoyen de Sirius banni par ‘le muphti de son pays’ pour ses propositions ‘sentant l’hérésie’, le géant Micromégas parcourt l’univers, et échoue sur Terre en compagnie d’un habitant de Saturne rencontré en chemin. Croyant tout d’abord la planète inhabitée en raison de la taille minuscule de ses habitants, les deux visiteurs finissent tout de même par établir le contact avec des Terriens membres d’une expédition scientifique, et une conversation s’engage.[1] Le lecteur assiste alors en compagnie de Micromégas et de ses interlocuteurs à une sorte de tour d’horizon des connaissances scientifiques de l’époque.

Titre de départ d'une édition de Micromégas de 1778

Romans et contes de Monsieur de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, Société typographique, 1778), vol.2, p.15.

Riche d’un contenu scientifique pointu (en tout cas pour l’époque), Micromégas joue sur les tensions qui animent le débat entre les théories scientifiques cartésienne et newtonienne – Voltaire, on le sait, avait largement contribué à faire connaître Newton en France avec ses Elements de la philosophie de Newton, composés en 1736-1737, période où a probablement germé dans son esprit l’idée du conte qui allait devenir Micromégas. Mais c’est également la tension entre poésie et science, et entre imagination et vérité qu’explore Voltaire dans son conte. Il ne s’agit pas simplement de mettre en récit des idées philosophiques, mais plutôt d’élaborer une fiction prenant pour thème la quête de la vérité. Dans cet objet littéraire hybride fait de science et de philosophie, Voltaire met littéralement en œuvre la méthode expérimentale héritée de Locke et de Newton.

Récit de science-fiction, fable, à la fois conte et règlement de comptes de l’auteur avec certains ennemis personnels, commentaire sur la société de son temps, le texte propose aussi une réflexion sur la place de l’homme dans l’Univers, entre deux infinis. Comme souvent chez Voltaire, la simplicité du style, la limpidité de la narration et la concision du récit dissimulent maints niveaux de complexité et des subtilités insoupçonnées au premier abord.

Loin de n’être qu’un conte philosophique certes très plaisant et qui prône les valeurs voltairiennes de tolérance et de lucidité, Micromégas revêt également une importance unique en tant que texte scientifique ‘déguisé’ en conte.

[1] On reconnaîtra facilement Maupertuis et les membres de son expédition polaire dans la petite équipe découverte par Micromégas. Témoin de l’actualité scientifique de son temps, Voltaire s’était enthousiasmé pour le voyage du savant en Laponie au cours des années 1736-1737, voyage qui contribua à confirmer la théorie de Newton selon laquelle la Terre était aplatie aux pôles.

Georges Pilard et Karen Chidwick

Death at Versailles

The Palace of Versailles is mounting a magnificent exhibition entitled ‘Le Roi est mort’ to mark the tercentenary of the death of Louis XIV. The exhibits, artefacts, texts, and background music document the king’s last days, how his body was treated after his death on 1 September 1715, and the rituals of mourning imposed during the long period which followed until his funeral in St Denis on 23 October.

Marche et Convoy funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roy de France (BnF).

Marche et Convoy funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roy de France (BnF).

If you want to know how French kings were embalmed, how their bodies were divided up between different final repositories, and how mourning dress differed between ‘grand’, ‘demi’ and petit’ categories, this is the place to go. There are excellent descriptions too of the great funeral procession from Versailles to St Denis on 9 September, which had 2,500 designated mourners, led by 400 paupers in black cloaks and hoods, carrying torches, and marching through the night.

The high point of the exhibition, however, comes in its first room. It is a reconstruction of the chapelle ardente created within St Denis to house the king’s coffin, which temporarily turned a Gothic interior into a wholly baroque setting, with skeletons and weepers around a high catafalque under a huge crown. The contrast between that and the tiny stone vault in the crypt where the king’s body was placed after the funeral, on an iron trestle next to that of his father, could scarcely be greater. Only then, however, could the traditional formula – ‘the king is dead; long live the king’ – have meaning and be proclaimed.

In its essentials this ritual was common to most monarchies in western Europe; and one of the great strengths of this exhibition, curated with exemplary skill and imagination, is its demonstration of how the ceremony evolved over time, drawing evidence chiefly from France, but occasionally from elsewhere. By 1715, for example, the wax effigies which had generally taken the place of the royal body in funeral processions since 1500 were falling out of use. Louis XIII had condemned the practice as a pagan relic, and in England James I was the last king to have his effigy carried at his funeral in 1625. Waxwork images were made of later English monarchs but chiefly used to show where they were buried in Westminster Abbey (and perhaps what they had looked like).

Ordre du Cortege pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lu

Ordre du Cortège pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lundi 11 Juillet 1791 (unknown artist, 1791). / Image BnF.

The royal funeral was losing something of its special mystery in other words, and it lost much more after 1715 as it was gradually adapted and redesigned to cover secular state funerals, beginning with Newton’s in 1727 in England, and in France with the transfer of the remains of Voltaire to the Panthéon in 1791 (the exhibition contains a painting of the procession.)

The funeral of Louis XIV therefore marked the apogee of the royal funeral. When preaching on that occasion Bishop Massillon, whose sermons Voltaire admired, famously insisted that ‘Dieu seul est grand’, and not the king himself. Whatever one might think of the king, however, his was undoubtedly a great funeral, and this is a great exhibition, wholly worthy of its subject and its setting. It closes on 21 February.

– Paul Slack

See also: Le Roi est mort.

Newtonianism in the French Enlightenment

Rob Iliffe is Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Science in the Department of History at the University of Sussex. He has written the Very Short Introduction to Newton and directs the online Newton Project. On 28 February 2015 he gave a fascinating talk at the ‘Voltaire and the Newtonian Revolution’ conference that explored the fate and legacy of Newton’s scientific views in eighteenth-century France of which this is a brief summary.

Newton_frontispiece

Soon after Newton had published his initial work on the heterogeneity of white light (in 1672), he became embroiled in a series of disputes about the truth of his theory, and about the facts on which it was based. Edme Mariotte’s failure to reproduce aspects of Newton’s ‘crucial experiment’ in 1681 influenced the negative opinion of Newton’s work by many French physicists, although there was increased interest in his work at the Académie des Sciences following the publication of his Optice in 1706. There was also opposition to the physical theories and epistemological claims expressed in his Principia Mathematica, and many commentators continued to prefer the Cartesian doctrine of tourbillons to the notion of ‘attraction’ that underlay Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

A delegation of French natural philosophers visited England in 1715 and were treated to a number of experiments that confirmed Newton’s theories. However, it was Newton’s death in the spring of 1727, and Bernard de Fontenelle’s influential Eloge that followed, that triggered a serious spurt of interest in his work. Two men, Voltaire and Pierre Moreau de Maupertuis wrote popular works in the early 1730s that brought the nature and revolutionary scope of Newton’s ideas to a much larger audience. Yet it was not until the results of a French scientific expedition to Lapland were announced in 1737 that the public really began to switch allegiance to the Newtonian worldview. This excursion, led by Maupertuis, left France in 1736 to measure the length of a degree, one year after another voyage had set out to perform similar cartographic measurements in Peru (now Ecuador). The results from the Finnish expedition, and indications from the ill-fated trip to Peru, showed that the earth was flattened at the poles (as Newton had argued), and was not a prolate spheroid as many Cartesians had claimed.

Newtonianism was duly adopted and made the central plank of their paean to Enlightenment by men such as Voltaire and Jean Le Rond D’Alembert. Newton’s attacks on arbitrary and fictitous ‘hypotheses’ and ‘systems’ were reconfigured to serve in the general assault on the ‘infamy’ of persecution and superstition. There were some problems with the approach, firstly because Newtonianism could be used (as the British largely did) to defend the idea of an intelligent Creator God, and secondly because Newton himself was clearly both devout and a serious student of theology. While the latter could be explained away as the result of senility or dilettantism, there was always the danger that Newton himself could be deified as the founder of Reason. This possibility was explored in the majestic designs for a Cenotaph to Newton created by Etienne-Louis Boullée in the mid-1780s, and in the early plans for a ‘Church of Newton’ described by Henri de Saint-Simon at the start of the following century.

– Rob Iliffe, Director of the Newton Project

Cross-section of a ‘Newton cenotaph’ by Etienne-Louis Boullée. Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Cross-section of a ‘Newton cenotaph’ by Etienne-Louis Boullée. Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Strange skies: Voltaire’s physics

Letter XIV of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques provides an insight into the early days of modern science, contrasting the theories of Descartes and Newton at a time in which Newtonian physics was new and controversial. The vitality of the debate as approached in this volume struck me, as a humanities student, more intensely than GCSE science lessons ever managed to; it made me realise that even the laws of gravity were a new discovery once.

VA39_Tourbillons

‘Figure des tourbillons de Descartes’, in Voltaire, La Henriade, divers autres poèmes etc. [Geneva, Cramer and Bardin], 1775, 37 vol., vol.26, facing p.355.

However, it was the way in which Descartes’ world was depicted that left a greater mark on me, through its apparent strangeness (although, had I heard about it in a physics classroom, no doubt it would seem as banal as gravity). In Voltaire’s portrayal, the emphasis is on movement, ‘tourbillons de matière subtile’,[1]  next to which our modern conception of gravity seems, if more accurate, somehow less dynamic. This theoretical universe is a crowded one, where light ‘existe dans l’air’ and the dominant forces are pushing ones; Newton’s is an elegant void, where movement is due to attraction.

After studying the letter, I wrote the poem below, inspired both by the painterly quality of Voltaire’s images, and the way in which reading it had offered me a new perspective on the way human knowledge changes. Letter XIV typifies a time very different from our era of specialization, where science and the humanities are carefully cordoned off from one another. Voltaire was spreading something that was, at that time, revolutionary, and it seems unlikely nowadays that a literary figure could be so fully involved with the cutting edge of science. I wanted to capture this sense of change, and the related fact that, while these competing explanations for the universe once ranked side by side, one has now been relegated to the status of image, while the other has become (relatively) unquestioned scientific fact.

Descartes thought the sky was made of spirals,
spangled whirlwind scrawls, a tide of starlight,
oily brushstrokes crowding in the midnight,
currents sweeping past the moon. His rival,
a Mr Newton, won; the Lumières jeered,
and though the sciences were an art those days,
the pictures Descartes saw were just a phase,
an early Van Gogh in the wrong career.

StarryNight_VanGogh

The Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889.

– Rowan Lyster

(Poem first published in the ISIS magazine, Oxford)

[1] All quotes are from Letter XIV, Lettres philosophiques.