Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment (part 2)

This contribution follows on from part 1 of ‘Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment’, published last week, and is adapted from the author’s article in ‘A Companion to World literature’, edited by Ken Seigneurie, Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2019.

Voltaire and the Biblical Orient

In the Protestant lands of Enlightenment Europe, in Britain and Germany especially, there were biblical scholars who became Orientalists in order to better understand the Hebrew Bible. By the second half of the eighteenth century there was widespread discussion of the ‘sublimity’ of Hebrew poetry and the Bible’s ‘Oriental’ style was an issue debated by eighteenth-century translators of the Bible: should the Orientalisms of the Hebrew original be rendered literally, as Johann David Michaelis believed, even at the risk of defamiliarizing the biblical text? Or should the Oriental style be tamed to suit the taste of the times? Even though not a reader of Hebrew, Voltaire was certainly sensitive to the ‘Oriental’ style of the Hebrew scriptures and, as a parodist and ventriloquist of genius, he took every opportunity to play with his ‘Oriental’ voice. The Oriental fiction Zadig has a parodic dedication signed by the Persian poet ‘Saadi’, preceded by a bogus ‘Approbation’ naming a Turkish chief judge, a spoof on contemporary French censorship (OCV, vol.30B, p.113-16). This parody of overblown ‘Oriental’ style becomes a philosophical discourse of choice and a favoured device in Voltaire’s high-profile campaigns of the 1760s against religious intolerance, carried on under the slogan Ecrasez l’infâme. Voltaire uses it in De l’horrible danger de la lecture (1765), a hard-hitting attack on censorship, written ostensibly in the voice of an Ottoman mufti, and again in the Epître écrite de Constantinople aux frères (c.1768) and the Avis à tous les orientaux (c.1769), both pleas for toleration and rational religion (OCV, vol.67, p.1-9, and vol.70A, p.1-10). These two polemical pamphlets, untypically, remained unpublished in Voltaire’s lifetime.

Mandement du muphti (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

When Voltaire needs to beg a favour of the duc de Choiseul, then foreign minister, he writes him a letter addressing him in the style of an Oriental potentate (9 January 1767, D13823). A mysterious text entitled Mandement du muphti, published anonymously in French in London in 1772, and claiming to be a translation from the Arabic, is a humorous attack on Voltaire, concluding with the hope that he be impaled in front of the château de Ferney. No one has ever been able to identify with certainty the author of this strange work but, given its bravura use of the Oriental voice, there is every chance that this work is by Voltaire himself, and that he is here parodying his own Oriental voice.

Voltaire clearly relishes the playful possibilities of the Oriental style but his creation of an Oriental voice is emphatically not innocent. Although himself no Hebrew scholar, he was steeped in biblical criticism and unstoppable on the subject of the illogicalities and absurdities of the Old Testament. Voltaire likes to emphasize the fictional, even fairy-tale, quality of the Hebrew scriptures, and so remind his readers of their status as an Oriental text. In 1759 Voltaire wrote to Mme Du Deffand: ‘je vous avouerai que je ne lis que l’ancien Testament, trois ou quatre chants de Virgile, tout L’Arioste, une partie des mille et une nuit’ (D8484). In this respect, Voltaire’s Orientalism takes a radical turn, for in placing the Bible and the 1001 Nights on the same footing as works of entertainment, Voltaire is using an argument from comparative literary history to undermine Christian orthodoxy. Faced by an ancient historical or theological text, Voltaire’s greatest term of abuse is to brand it a ‘fable’: as a character in Jeannot and Colin remarks, ‘Toutes les histoires anciennes, comme le disait un de nos beaux esprits, ne sont que des fables convenues’ (OCV, vol.57B, p.280). In Aventure indienne there is a hilarious description of Bacchus walking across the Red Sea without wetting his feet, these details, the narrator notes, ‘comme on le raconte fidèlement dans les Orphiques’ (OCV, vol.60B, p.253): for Voltaire to imply an equivalence between Bacchus and Moses is amusing (and he was familiar with the current of scholarship since the Renaissance that deliberately sought out comparisons between mythological and Christian figures); but to hint that biblical scriptures might be as fanciful as mythological accounts is seriously provocative. Similarly Ralph Nablow shows that a mythologicial reference in the conclusion to La Princesse de Babylone (OCV, vol.66, p.203) has a distinct biblical echo.

Voltaire, Le Taureau blanc ([London], 1774).

Voltaire’s most daring Oriental work, written when he was 80, is undoubtedly Le Taureau blanc (1773-1774), an Oriental fiction constructed on the fables of the Old Testament. As Roger Pearson writes in his translation of Candide and other stories, ‘As an Oriental tale devoted to the Bible it is unique not only among Voltaire’s stories but also among all eighteenth-century Oriental tales’ (Oxford, 2006). The heroine of the tale, princess Amaside, demands to be entertained by the stories told her by the old serpent, but she turns out to be more discriminating than Scheherazade, and is bored by all his tales from the Old Testament: ‘“I find stories like that boring,” remarked the fair Amaside, who had both intelligence and good taste … “I require a story to be essentially plausible, and not always sounding like the account of a dream. I prefer it to be neither trivial nor far-fetched … But, worst of all, when this sort of nonsense is written in an inflated and incomprehensible style, I find it dreadfully tiresome.”’

In encouraging his readers to regard the Old Testament as an Oriental text, one more among so many, he was taking his habitual relativism to new levels of impertinence, and of radicalism. The Christian Bible might be seen by some as the founding text of world literature – as it is by the Chicago professor of literary criticism Richard Moulton in 1911 in World literature and its place in general culture – insofar as it speaks across linguistic and cultural barriers, and has meaning in many different cultures in many different periods. Voltaire, in his role as literary historian, seems to take pleasure in reminding us that the Word of God is the product of a specific group of Eastern cultures.

Conclusion

Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares (Londres [Amsterdam], 1776) (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Voltaire’s researches as a historian, allied to his insatiable literary interests, made him enormously receptive to world literature and it is no exaggeration to characterize him as a pioneering historian of comparative literature. Relativism is at the core of his philosophical approach, so a work like his Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares (1776) uses the wisdom of imagined Chinese and Indian cultures to comment on religion and politics in France. If his belief in the universality of human reason encourages him to minimize the distinctions between different literary cultures, his determination to undermine the unique position accorded to the ‘fables’ of the Old Testament encourages him to emphasize the ‘Oriental’, non-European, quality of the Hebrew scriptures. Voltaire’s unprecedented literary celebrity earned him a European, and eventually a global, readership. True, it is Goethe who is credited with inventing the word Weltliteratur, much influenced as he was by ‘Oriental’ poets; but it is hard to think that Goethe’s conception of world literature would have developed as it did had it not been for the intellectual example of Voltaire.

Nicholas Cronk

Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment

This contribution to Talking about Voltaire and the Enlightenment is adapted from the author’s article in A Companion to World Literature, edited by Ken Seigneurie, Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2019.

Voltaire, like all thinkers of the Enlightenment, was well versed in classical literature and was especially interested in the world literature of his own day, reading English, Italian and Spanish, along with English translations of texts not yet translated into French, such as Camões’s The Lusiads, and the Qur’an in George Sale’s scholarly edition. He is also a historian of European literature. His Essay on epic poetry (1727), which he wrote and published in English before producing a French-language version, is a pioneering essay in comparative European literature, comparing the different European epic poets from Homer to Milton. The Letters concerning the English nation (1733) is comparative in a different way, contrasting tragedy, comedy, and lyric poetry in the French and English traditions. This is European literary history for a European audience.

J. B. Du Halde, Description de la Chine (Paris, 1735) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

But Voltaire’s voracious literary appetite extends beyond Europe. His tragedy L’Orphelin de la Chine, first performed at the Comédie-française in 1755, has its source in a thirteenth-century Chinese play, translated into French by Joseph-Henri de Prémare as L’Orphelin de la maison de Chao, that Voltaire found included in Du Halde’s Description de la Chine (1735), a best-selling work on all aspects of Chinese culture. The philosophes of the Enlightenment were fascinated by the example of Chinese religion and culture, and they drew their information primarily from the Jesuit Du Halde, whose work was translated into English (1736), German (1747), Dutch (1774), and Russian (1774).

Voltaire’s interest in literature beyond Europe is intimately connected with his historiographical interests more generally. Before the Enlightenment, what was called ‘universal history’ in Christian Europe was invariably the history of the Christian world. A well-known example is Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1679, published 1682). Relativism is at the heart of Voltaire’s thought and he resolved to write a history of the world that would present Europe and European culture alongside other continents and cultures, so decentering Europe, and the Christian religion, from its ascendant position. The Essai sur les mœurs, as his universal history is usually known, was begun in the 1740s and appeared in its first full edition in 1756; Voltaire continued to revise the work until his death in 1778. This innovative work recounts the history of China, India, Africa, America, and the Muslim world alongside that of Europe, and the range is unprecedented. The essential ideological aim is clear: Voltaire seeks to sketch the progress of human civilization, which for him amounts to the triumph of reason; the underlying assumption is that all human cultures, whatever their apparent differences, share the same fundamental beliefs in reason and a supreme being (in this he differs from Bayle, who in the seventeenth century had praised China as a sophisticated atheistic culture, unlike that of Europe).

Voltaire’s declared ambition in the Essai sur les mœurs is not just to recite the deeds of kings and warriors but to tell the story of human intellectual endeavour. This attempt to sketch the history of culture – in practice this means, for Voltaire, literature – is remarkably innovative, even if the ambition was hard to realize, given the resources then available to him. So, in chapter 82 of the Essai, devoted to science and the arts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Voltaire contrasts what he sees as the decadence of European culture with the vibrancy of the Muslim world. He discusses the Persian poet Saadi, whom he describes as a contemporary of Petrarch, and equally famous as him (OCV, t.24, p.282-83). Voltaire was able to find ample information about Saadi in d’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque orientale (1697); but, more than that, he gives us an extended example of one of Saadi’s poems, 15 lines of exemplary alexandrine verse. Voltaire’s openness to the East turns out to be cultural appropriation on a grand scale, but the gesture was influential none the less. Jaucourt’s article on ‘Poésie orientale moderne’ in the Encyclopédie (1765; vol.12, p.839f.) is lifted directly and explicitly from Voltaire’s text, and quotes in full Voltaire’s imitation of Saadi’s verse.

Voltaire’s predilection for tendentious translation of selected literary passages – what the French call belles infidèles – is a key part of his practice of literary comparativism, and it is not only Saadi who is subjected to this process; Shakespeare and others are rewritten in the Letters concerning the English nation, and a number of Latin poets are translated, more or less freely, in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. Of course, the ideological gesture is always to the fore: Voltaire is trying to do for literature what he does for religion – to suggest there are universal human values.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Voltaire’s attempt to reconceive universal history. The Essai sur les mœurs was a huge bestseller that reset the intellectual horizons of Enlightenment Europe. To take just one example, Adam Smith, in his Theory of moral sentiments, talks about Africans in one example (V.2.9) and on another occasion uses China in a thought experiment (III.1.46), and it is hard to imagine that he would have had such easy recourse to examples like these if Voltaire’s universal history had not paved the way. The work is equally influential regarding the history of world literature. Voltaire’s appropriation of the literature of other cultures for his own uses is a polemical gesture that he makes no attempt to hide. Even so, his determination to include literature in his treatment of world history was highly innovative and, more generally, Voltaire’s eagerness to discuss literature from outside Europe is remarkable and without precedent. As a practitioner of comparative literary study, Voltaire is a pioneer.

Charles Parrocel, Mehemet Effendi, Turkish ambassador, arrives at the Tuileries on 21 March 1721 (Château de Versailles).

Voltaire and the Oriental

In the eighteenth century Europe’s long-standing fear of the Turk was replaced by fascination. Following the failed siege of Vienna (1683) and the ensuing Peace of Karlowitz (1699), the Ottomans sent more frequent embassies to the European capitals, most famously to Paris in 1721 and 1742, where the magnificent spectacle of the ambassadors’ entourage aroused widespread comment and excitement. This eighteenth-century obsession with the Oriental made itself felt in painting and literature, in the applied arts as well as in fashion.

The actor Le Kain in the role of Genghis Khan in Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine (1765). Drawing by M. F. A. Castelle, engraved by Pierre Charles Levesque.

The Orient, used in this broad sense, embraces Turkey, Persia, China and India, and the newly fashionable interest in these cultures reinforced Voltaire’s desire to investigate culture beyond the confines of Europe. All of Voltaire’s non-European literary explorations can be loosely grouped under the Oriental label and he became celebrated for his extensive use of this exotic material. Voltaire is pioneering in the extent to which he uses Oriental subject matter in his tragedies: in addition to his play Zaïre, translated into many languages,and L’Orphelin de la Chine there are many more. To some extent, this is a question of local colour: eager to differentiate himself from the classical tragedians of the previous century, who had mainly found their sources in Greek mythology and Roman history, the Orient offered Voltaire the chance to explore new emotional terrain. Furthermore Voltaire was keen to reform French classical tragedy by giving greater importance to costumes and sets and by introducing spectacular scenic effects, and here again, in Sémiramis for example, the Oriental subject matter suited him well. Audiences loved the exotic costumes and the actor Le Kain had himself depicted as Genghis Khan in L’Orphelin de la Chine, complete with feather headdress, in a portrait that circulated widely as an engraving. There are ideological reasons for Voltaire’s choice of Oriental subject matter. He had no interest in writing tragedies about cultures alien to him and his audience, quite the contrary in fact; his desire was not to explore the emotional terrain of an ‘other’ culture, but to use the other relativistically to refract on his own. A case in point is Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le prophète, first performed in 1741. The character Muhammad is portrayed as a despotic religious leader who manipulated the credulity of his followers to achieve his own cynical ends: Voltaire intended the work, of course, as an implicit attack on Christian religious fanaticism and he uses Islam as a cover for Christianity. Eighteenth-century audiences everywhere understood the subterfuge and the play was widely performed. Modern audiences no longer understand this relativistic strategy and the play has become all but unperformable because it is now misunderstood as nothing more than a crude attack on Islam.

Zadig, Antoine-Jean Duclos (1742-1795) after Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814) in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Kehl, 1784 (Wikimedia Commons).

It is in the field of fiction that the eighteenth century was most open to Oriental influence. Antoine Galland’s reworking into French of the 1001 Nights (1704-1717), itself the basis for translations into other European languages including English and German, enjoyed phenomenal success. Galland’s work in turn had enormous influence on the evolution of fiction all across Europe, and it has been calculated that the number of French ‘Oriental’ fictions published during the eighteenth century numbers nearly 700 (see Marie-Louise Dufrenoy, L’Orient romanesque en France, 1704-1789, Montreal, 1946-1947, i.343). Voltaire is nothing if not reactive to literary fashion, and over an extended period he writes some 11 short fictions making use of this Oriental framework, amounting to nearly a half of his entire fictional production: in order of publication, Zadig, ou la destinée, Le Monde comme il va, Memnon, Lettre d’un Turc, Histoire d’un bon bramin, Le Blanc et le noir, Aventure indienne, La Princesse de Babylone, Les Lettres d’Amabed, Le Taureau blanc, Le Crocheteur borgne. In works like Zadig or La Princesse de Babylone, he plays with the Oriental motif deriving from Galland, always keeping his reader alert in the way he treads a fine line between parody and pastiche.

Voltaire is allergic to fairy tales, and fables in general, because he wants humankind to make use of reason; but he is a master of pastiche and he enjoys playing with the metafictional possibilities that the Oriental tale can create. In the article ‘Fiction’ of his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, he recounts an Oriental tale which purports to be a familiar story but which is in fact Voltaire’s own invented pastiche of the 1001 Nights. The other great narrative advantage of Oriental material was the easy pretext it provided for erotic subject matter and Voltaire makes generous use too of these opportunities. A number of French Oriental fictions, usually with a philosophical sting in the tail, were published as being by ‘M. de V… ‘: Voltaire had, of course, nothing to do with them but, in the minds of his readers, he was closely identified with the genre.

Nicholas Cronk

A continuation of this piece, ‘Voltaire and the Biblical Orient’, will be posted shortly on this blog.

Voltaire in Korea

‘Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction’ has just appeared in Korean, published by Humanitas. The author of the book, Nicholas Cronk, collaborated with his translator, the Enlightenment scholar Minchul Kim, to write this preface specially aimed at readers in South Korea.

‘The more I would like to extend my knowledge of history, the more I realise that it is necessarily limited. An Asiatic, an inhabitant of the vast country of China scarcely knows of our existence, and our Europe is for him what Korea and northern Japan are for us.’

Jean-Baptisite Du Halde, Description de l’Empire de la Chine

Jean-Baptisite Du Halde, Description de l’Empire de la Chine (Paris, 1735). (Swaen)

So writes Voltaire in one of his notebooks. He had an enduring interest in non-European cultures, as the books in his scholarly library of 6000 books clearly testify. This led him to write one of his most ambitious works, his Essay on manners (in French, Essai sur les mœurs), which is a pioneering attempt to write a universal history. Before Voltaire, so-called universal histories, like that of Bossuet written in the late seventeenth century, tended to confine themselves to the history of Christian Europe, and Voltaire set out to write a history of all nations across the globe. Not only does he seek to describe the political and military history of all the world’s nations, he also aims to talk about their religious beliefs and their culture more generally; in particular, when he can find the information, their literature. He possessed a book called Description of China (in French, Description de la Chine), published in 1735 by the Jesuit Du Halde, a hugely popular work describing many aspects of Chinese culture; and it was here, in this huge compendium of information, that he uncovered the text of a thirteenth-century Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao (translated into French by Joseph-Henri de Prémare as L’Orphelin de la maison de Chao).

Ji Junxiang, L’Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao

Ji Junxiang, L’Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao, in Du Halde, Description de la Chine. (Wikimedia Commons)

Voltaire was so excited by this discovery that he used the play as the basis of his tragedy The Orphan of China (in French, L’Orphelin de la Chine), a tale of love, duty and final forgiveness set in the imperial palace in Beijing at the moment when Genghis Khan had invaded China. First performed at the Comédie-Française in Paris in 1755, the play enjoyed an enormous success, and such was Voltaire’s fame as a writer that translations soon followed into other European languages: English (1756), Italian (1762), German (1763), Dutch (1765), Swedish (1777), Portuguese (1783), Spanish (1787), Danish (1815) and Polish (1836). Voltaire’s use on the stage of a thirteenth-century Chinese drama thus reached an enormously wide audience all across Europe, and the play was so successful that it had an influence on European culture even beyond the theatre. Voltaire was a French writer but he was never satisfied with a purely French readership, and even in his own lifetime he enjoyed celebrity status as a writer all across Europe.

Korea is indeed mentioned in The Orphan of China, but most references to Korea in Voltaire’s writings are to be found, not surprisingly, in his historical works, especially in his universal history. In the opening chapter of the Essay on manners, he speaks of Korea as part of the vast Chinese (he means Mongol) empire, ‘at the eastern extremity of our globe’, and he describes the various conquests of Genghis Khan, including that of Korea. Voltaire is clearly frustrated by the lack of information available to him, and he freely admits that Korea is one of those countries that remains poorly known in Europe.

Reading Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine at the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier

Reading Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine at the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier (1812). (Wikimedia Commons)

While Voltaire is always interested in learning more about such nations, he is also eager to point out that the countries of the Middle East, for example, have ‘many fables’ remarkably similar to those of the Europeans – by which, of course, he means the Christian Bible (a dig at the so-called singularity of the Catholic Church). Habits in different countries from the Dardanelles to the ends of Korea may be different, Voltaire writes, and yet the basic foundation of ethical thinking is the same in all nations. There are also traditions and habits in civil life common to all parts of the globe, he claims, so for example, on the first day of the year, in Japan as in France, relatives and friends offer each other gifts. Behind the superficial differences between nations, Voltaire wants to insist that man is fundamentally the same across the globe. He is particularly keen to argue this point with regard to religion: each culture has its own way of praising God, he believes, but fundamentally we all praise the same supreme being, who created the Universe and who teaches us goodness.

This is a view that is easy to criticize. Historians of religion will point to substantial differences between some of the world’s religions. Other critics accuse Voltaire of what Edward Said calls ‘Orientalism’, that is, the patronizing colonial gesture of measuring the cultures of the Middle East by the yardstick of Europe, rather than judging them at their own value. But to be fair to Voltaire (who in any case is writing before the European colonisation of the Middle East), the sources available to him were limited, and he does try to master what scant information there is. Moreover, he is always quite explicit about his aim, which is deliberately to identify the elements of humanity that are common to all cultures. Voltaire can be accused of being Euro-centric – he could hardly be anything else – but his fundamental wish is to describe the qualities and values common to all humanity. In 1760-1761 the Anglo-Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith published The Citizen of the World, or Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, a collection of letters written by a fictional Chinese philosopher Lien Chi Altangi, who was supposedly living in London. The expression ‘a citizen of the world’ became current in Europe in the eighteenth century, and it would be no exaggeration to describe Voltaire as one of the first ‘citizens of the world’.

* * *

Notwithstanding Voltaire’s stature as the representative figure of European Enlightenment, and notably of its most popular version which demanded resistance to the fanaticism and dogmatism of established religions, Korean readers have so far not been treated well with books to introduce them to his world. There is only a small number of scholarly articles written in Korean by and for scholars of European studies: in the fields of history, literature, philosophy, and political theory. As for books, overshadowed by the publishing success of Rousseau’s On the Social Contract, Korean publications relating to Voltaire have been confined to translations of a small set of ‘canonical’ fictions and treatises: Candide, Oedipe, Zadig, Micromégas, Lettres philosophiques, Dictionnaire philosophique, Précis du siècle de Louis XV, and the Treatise on tolerance. Very recently there have been published a small number of works on Voltaire, almost exclusively concentrating on his thoughts about China and Confucianism, sometimes producing, from a wishful selection of quotes, a far-fetched argument about the place of ancient Chinese philosophy in European Enlightenment. Among all these books, the only ones that are frequently read are Candide and the Treatise on tolerance. There is not a single book published on Voltaire the man as a whole.

A study guide to Candide in Korean

A study guide to Candide in Korean.

This is a lamentable lacuna, one which must be filled first in order to let the public know that there had indeed been a huge hole. The reading public is hungry for a succinct yet authoritative account of the man himself. South Korea is emerging as one of the world’s most dynamic and robust democracies and has recently experienced a completely peaceful yet remarkably successful revolutionary movement: the Candle Revolution of 2016–2017. Accordingly, its public sphere, aided by all kinds of old and new media, is witnessing the birth of debates which are resistant to dogmatism of all sorts and open to considering new world-views. This is the world of Voltaire, the sceptic poet who often dared not hope too loudly as he put forth his optimistic accounts of a future rid of fanaticism and despotism, a future in which the people are politically liberal and culturally refined. This is a world of gradual perfectibility, a world that can be transformed for the better by human will, an optimism part strategic and part sincere that has not always been favoured but is clearly the dominant rising voice in South Korea today. This is the world of Voltaire, crooked and complex, but also moving, demanding, and liberating.

Nicholas Cronk and Minchul Kim

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.

Le voyage de trois élèves de St Albans à Oxford

De g. à d.: Jamie, Chris, Will et Dimitri.

Le 15 janvier 2019, nous sommes partis de St Albans School pour visiter la Fondation Voltaire à Oxford afin de rencontrer le professeur Nicholas Cronk et le Dr Gillian Pink, avec l’intention d’en savoir plus sur leur travail à la Fondation. Après une heure et demie de route, nous sommes arrivés à notre destination. Le but de notre visite à la Fondation était d’améliorer notre compréhension des contes philosophiques de Voltaire Zadig et Micromégas pour notre examen de Pre-U. Nous savions que c’était une chance incroyable de pouvoir visiter la Fondation.

Conversation avec le professeur Cronk et le Dr Pink

De g. à d.: Will, Chris, Dimitri, Dr Pink, Pr Cronk.

Le Dr Pink et le professeur Cronk nous ont expliqué comment l’institut avait été établi et les buts de la Fondation. En discutant avec le professeur Cronk, nous avons aussi découvert les thèmes principaux des deux contes, ce qui nous sera bénéfique sans doute pour nos examens de Pre-U cet été. Nous avons discuté en particulier des problèmes du mal, de la différence entre la providence et la destinée et la différence entre la conclusion leibnizienne de Zadig et la critique sévère de Leibniz dans le conte de Candide. Nous avons d’abord examiné le problème du mal dans un contexte historique et philosophique et la question de l’existence d’un Dieu et des cruautés du monde.

Chris et le Dr Pink examinent une lettre de Voltaire.

Nous avons ensuite discuté pour savoir si, dans le conte de Zadig, Voltaire aborde ce problème en utilisant l’ironie, ou s’il essaie de nous donner l’occasion d’y réfléchir nous-mêmes en ne tirant pas de conclusion. C’est une œuvre de fiction dans le style d’un conte oriental. Ensuite nous avons parlé du rôle des sciences dans le conte de Micromégas. Nous avons fini la séance en regardant d’anciennes lettres de Voltaire adressées à ses amis. On peut vraiment dire que c’était une expérience unique et inoubliable pour tout le monde. Nous étions vraiment ravis de pouvoir tenir un moment d’histoire entre nos mains et de voir la vraie signature d’un tel écrivain.

Ce qui leur arrive à la ‘Voltaire Room’

Dimitri, plongé dans une édition originale.

En arrivant à la Taylor Institution, on a rencontré Nick Hearn, qui nous a montré plusieurs livres originaux de Voltaire. Par exemple, on a eu la chance de tenir un manuscrit authentique entre nos mains et Nick Hearn nous a montré une édition originale de Micromégas, imprimée en 1752.

– Chris, Dimitri et Will, St Albans School

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 and the one-liner

To mark the publication at Oxford University Press of his new book ‘Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction’, a contribution to their Very Short Introductions series, Nicholas Cronk has written the following post about the wit and wisdom of Voltaire for the OUP Blog.

Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Cronk is published by Oxford University Press.

As we mark Voltaire’s 323rd birthday – though the date of 20 February is problematic, – what significance does the great Enlightenment writer have for us now? If I had to be very very short, I’d say that Voltaire lives on as a master of the one-liner. He presents us with a paradox. Voltaire wrote a huge amount – the definitive edition of his Complete works being produced by the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford will soon be finished, in around 200 volumes. And yet he is really famous for his short sentences. He likes being brief, though as a critic once remarked, “Voltaire is interminably brief.”

Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, is full of telling phrases. “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” asks Candide in Chapter 6. The expression “best of all possible worlds” comes originally from the philosopher Leibniz, but it is Voltaire’s repeated use of the phrase in Candide that has made it instantly familiar today. Another saying from the novel was an instant hit with French readers: in Chapter 16, Candide and his manservant Cacambo, travelling in the New World dressed as Jesuits, fall into the hands of cannibals who exclaim triumphantly: “Mangeons du jésuite” (“Let’s eat some Jesuit”): the Jesuits were highly unpopular in France at this time, and the expression instantly became a catch-phrase.

One French expression from Candide has even become proverbial in English. In 1756, the British lost Minorca to the French, as a result of which Admiral Byng was court-martialled and executed. Voltaire has fun with this in Chapter 23:

‘And why kill this admiral?’
‘Because he didn’t kill enough people,’ Candide was told. ‘He gave battle to a French admiral, and it has been found that he wasn’t close enough.’
‘But,’ said Candide, ‘the French admiral was just as far away from the English admiral as he was from him!’
‘Unquestionably,’ came the reply. ‘But in this country it is considered a good thing to kill an admiral from time to time, pour encourager les autres.’

Painting of Voltaire by Bouchot.

Voltaire. After a painting, by Bouchot No. 539. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire’s other writings are equally full of pithy and memorable short sentences, which often help him drive home a point, such as this, from his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie: “L’espèce humaine est la seule qui sache qu’elle doit mourir” (“The human species is unique in knowing it must die”).

Other lines, like this one from his poem about luxury, Le Mondain, “Le superflu, chose très nécessaire” (“The superfluous, a very necessary thing”) are all the more memorable for being in verse. Voltaire’s facility for producing snappy phrases is even there in his private correspondence, as this letter to his friend Damilaville (1 April 1766): “Quand la populace se mêle de raisonner, tout est perdu” (“When the masses get involved in reasoning, everything is lost”).

And one phrase that still resonates with us comes from a private notebook that Voltaire surely never intended to publish: “Dieu n’est pas pour les gros bataillons, mais pour ceux qui tirent le mieux” (“God is on the side not of the heavy battalions, but of the best shots”).

Then there are the ones that got away, the one-liners he never actually said – ‘misquotations’ in the parlance of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Hardly a week passes without a newspaper quoting “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire’s rallying cry of free speech is central to our modern liberal agenda, so it’s a bit awkward that he never actually said it. The expression was made up in 1906 by an English woman, biographer E. B. Hall. But she meant well, and we have collectively decided that Voltaire should have said it. Another advantage of Voltaire’s one-liners is that they provide great marketing copy, and a quick search on the web reveals that many of them are for sale, on t-shirts, shopping-bags, and mugs. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is especially popular, in French as well as English – which explains my favourite t-shirt: “Je me battrai jusqu’à ma mort pour que vous puissiez citer erronément Voltaire” (“I will fight to my death so that you can quote Voltaire incorrectly”).

Luckily, wit is contagious. There is a famous one-liner in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, when the servant Figaro imagines addressing his aristocratic master: “Vous vous êtes donné la peine de naître, et rien de plus” (“You took the trouble to be born, and nothing more”). This has become so celebrated that we have forgotten that Beaumarchais was only improving on a less snappy one-liner he had found in one of Voltaire’s more obscure comedies. George Bernard Shaw, a self-styled follower of Voltaire, has fun with misattributed sayings in Man and Superman:

Tanner: Let me remind you that Voltaire said that what was too silly to be said could be sung.
Straker: It wasn’t Voltaire. It was Bow Mar Shay.
Tanner: I stand corrected: Beaumarchais of course.

And so we go on inventing Voltaire. Another dictum that has recently gained wide currency on the web is this: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

Now regularly attributed to Voltaire, this saying seems to originate with something written in 1993 by Kevin Alfred Strom, an American neo-Nazi Holocaust denier, and not a man who obviously exudes Voltairean wit and irony. But once you become an authority, it seems, all sides have a claim on you.

The one-liner can seem a good way of encapsulating a truth: “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” (“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”).

Voltaire knew he was on to a winner with this line, from a poem of 1768 (the Epître à l’auteur du livre des trois imposteurs), and he re-used it often in later works. Another much-repeated phrase occurs at the end of Candide. When the characters finally come together, after umpteen trials and tribulations, all argument is silenced with the words “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (“We must cultivate our garden”). Is this a precious nugget of wisdom, neatly encapsulated? Or is it just another “Brexit means Brexit”, a trite phrase meaning anything and nothing? But that, of course, is another use of the one-liner: to maintain suspense, while bringing down the curtain at the end….

– Nicholas Cronk

This post first appeared on the OUP Blog.

Nouvelles perspectives sur les manuscrits des Lumières

Dans le cadre superbe de l’hôtel de Lauzun, l’Institut d’études avancées de Paris a accueilli le 26 mai 2014 une journée d’étude destinée à faire le point sur certaines des découvertes récentes dans la recherche sur les manuscrits du Siècle des Lumières. Depuis quelques années, l’actualité attire l’attention sur certains manuscrits mythiques, comme celui d’Histoire de ma vie de Casanova qui a rejoint les collections publiques de la Bibliothèque nationale de France en 2010 grâce à un mécène, ou bien tout récemment, le rouleau des 120 journées de Sodome de Sade enfin de retour à Paris, pour y être exposé à l’automne au Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits.

NF_ill1

Le manuscrit des 120 journées de Sodome

Les salles de vente bruissent des papiers des écrivains du XVIIIe siècle: ceux d’Emilie du Châtelet sont passés il y a peu aux enchères ainsi que dernièrement ceux de Portalis, l’un des auteurs du Code civil, dont la Cour de Cassation a réussi à acquérir le dossier génétique complet d’une de ses œuvres, la Consultation sur la validité des mariages protestants de France, qui comprend une copie au net annotée de la main de Voltaire.

Tandis que les manuscrits sortent des coffres et s’exposent derrière des vitrines ou sur des écrans numériques, de leur côté les chercheurs se lancent dans leur patiente analyse. Ce fut le but de cette journée, organisée par Nicholas Cronk, Nathalie Ferrand et Andrew Jainchill en collaboration avec l’équipe Ecritures du XVIIIe siècle de l’Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes, de montrer tout l’intérêt, pour la compréhension et l’interprétation des œuvres, de l’étude de leurs états préparatoires et remaniés.

La page de titre des Considérations sur le gouvernement du marquis d’Argenson (1764)

La page de titre des Considérations sur le gouvernement du marquis d’Argenson (1764)

Ouvrant la matinée avec une intervention consacrée au marquis d’Argenson, Andrew Jainchill (Queen’s University, IEA) a présenté quatre états manuscrits de ses Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France, l’une des critiques les plus vives de la monarchie française au XVIIIe siècle – citée plusieurs fois dans le Contrat Social – dont il put interpréter l’évolution en fonction des additions de l’auteur dans ses différentes versions.

Après la théorie politique, c’est la philosophie naturelle de Mme du Châtelet qui fut l’objet d’une étude menée par Karen Detlefsen (U. of Pennsylvania) et Andrew Janiak (Duke U.), à partir d’une comparaison des manuscrits de ses Institutions de physique conservés à Paris et à Saint-Pétersbourg. Dans l’après-midi, Nicholas Cronk (U. of Oxford, IEA) a présenté les dernières découvertes dans le domaine voltairien, et a montré à quel point la recherche des manuscrits est féconde – y compris pour des auteurs canoniques comme Voltaire dont on croit tout savoir –, puisqu’on continue de découvrir de nouveaux manuscrits qui renouvellent les connaissances établies.

Au plus près du papier et des instruments d’écriture des auteurs, Claire Bustarret (CNRS-EHESS) a ensuite présenté les apports de la codicologie pour déterminer les campagnes d’écriture au sein de corpus manuscrits imposants, comme dans le cas des papiers de Condorcet. La journée s’est achevée par une intervention de Nathalie Ferrand (CNRS-ENS) sur l’importance croissante accordée aux manuscrits d’auteurs au sein des études dix-huitiémistes et sur le rôle qu’ont pu jouer les manuscrits des Lumières dans l’émergence progressive de la critique génétique au cours du XXe siècle, concluant par l’interprétation génétique d’une page de La Nouvelle Héloïse que Rousseau récrit en puisant au lyrisme du Tasse.

– Nathalie Ferrand, Ecole normale supérieure-CNRS

Caption: Page de corrections de La Nouvelle Héloïse de la main de J.-J. Rousseau

Caption: Page de corrections de La Nouvelle Héloïse de la main de J.-J. Rousseau

Pangloss, Guru of Positive Thinking: Candide at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Candide new imageMark Ravenhill is now in his second year as Writer in Residence at the RSC. His latest play, Candide, ‘inspired by Voltaire’, is currently in rehearsal and opens at the Swan Theatre in Stratford on 29 August, where it will run until 26 October. The play is directed by Lyndsey Turner, and the advance publicity warns that the performances will include ‘strong language, violence and reckless optimism’. Nicholas Cronk, director of the Voltaire Foundation, went to watch an early rehearsal and talk to Mark Ravenhill.

Candide REH-114

Candide in rehearsal

Nicholas Cronk: The RSC invited you to write a new play on any subject: what made you choose Candide?

Mark Ravenhill: Candide is one of those books I read when I was young and that I come back to regularly. It’s a book that makes me laugh and think – it would be very hard to like someone who didn’t enjoy Candide! Also, everyone thinks they know Candide – you hear people described as ‘Panglossian’. So if Candide appears on a poster, it feels familiar.

NC: Candide has often been rewritten as a narrative, for example George Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God (1932), but less often successfully reworked for the stage – with the notable exception of Bernstein’s Candide. What are the challenges of rethinking this work for the stage?

MR: There is a remarkable nimbleness of style, a balancing act of tone, in Voltaire, which is hard to bring off on stage. When you speak the words out loud, the effect is very different from when you read them. So one needs to do something new with a stage performance, not simply ‘tell the story’. When I was asked by the RSC to write a new play, I was already thinking about ideas of happiness and optimism in modern society. The American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich has written about this in her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2009) [in the USA the book is called Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America]. She talks about the happiness industry, the rise of medication to make us happy and of self-help books, and the influence of all this on religion. In many ways religion has become another form of self-help. We all suffer from over-exposure to positive thinking.

Candide in rehearsal

Candide in rehearsal

NC: I like the idea of Voltaire as agony aunt. There is a novel by Dinah Lee Kung, A Visit from Voltaire (2004), in which the ghost of Voltaire turns up to sort out the problems of a modern-day American family living in Geneva…: this is Voltaire as the inventor of the self-help manual.

MR: In the business world, the idea of positive thinking is absolutely entrenched. The financial crisis happened because no-one could actually say out loud how bad things were…

NC: Voltaire’s novel makes fun of Pangloss and the Leibnizian idea that evil doesn’t really exist. And you feel we are living in a culture that can’t face up to the existence of evil? that makes Panglosses of us all?

MR: We are now so far advanced in our denial of evil that we want to rationalise it away. Twenty years ago, when you bumped into someone and asked how they were, they would say, ‘Mustn’t grumble’ or ‘Getting by’: now they feel obliged to say ‘Just great!’. In both cases, the reply is just a social nicety, but the framework has changed, it’s as if it’s become a social duty to express happiness. Optimism and happiness are not the same thing, but they are becoming interchangeable, and it seemed to me that Voltaire’s Candide gave me a way into something important happening in modern-day culture.

NC: Are there other ways in which the text has contemporary echoes for you?

MR: Rereading Candide, I was struck by the link between optimism and the optimal, the idea that we have been placed in this optimal world rather than some other. Voltaire’s novel offers us parallel universes, the possibility of entering into alternative worlds existing side by side, and this is something quite modern. Nested narratives and parallel universes are popular at the moment in many different art forms.

NC: Candide itself is a very self-referential text, full of spoofs of other fictions. When Candide is driven crazy by his love for Cunégonde, he rushes round carving her name on the bark of trees, like a character in a Shakespearean comedy…

MR: Yes, even within single sentences, there are sudden changes of register. And when the travellers go to Venice, they see a play by Voltaire! This is a novel which has narratives within narratives, such as when Cunégonde recounts her story.

NC: And these nested narratives and parallel universes shape your new play?

Candide in rehearsal

Candide in rehearsal

MR: I have not chosen to create a linear story, but a series of different narratives: in the end there are five plays that almost, but don’t quite, add up to one play…  I start with the story of Candide, being performed as a play within a play, to bring the audience up to speed with the story. Each scene exists in a different universe and moves between different genres. The fourth scene invites us to join Candide in Eldorado and explores life as it could ideally be: this is proto sci-fi, rather like what happens in Gulliver’s Travels. And in the fifth and final scene, we move slightly into the future, as Pangloss finds success as the purveyor of optimism.

NC: How easy is it to stage contemporary characters engaging in philosophical debate?

MR: Theatre within theatre, when characters sees themselves on stage, always raises philosophical questions of choice and free will. And then there is the question of language. Although the play is not written in strict verse form, there is an underlying beat of rhyming couplets, with echoes of Pope and the tradition of eighteenth-century philosophical verse.

NC: For members of the audience who would like a refresher course in Candide before the first night, you have produced a special new version of Voltaire’s novel?

MR: Yes, I have adapted the whole book into tweets of 140 characters, and these are being sent out daily, at the rate of eight tweets per day [from 26 June to 29 August: @TweetCandide].

NC: It tells us something remarkable about Voltaire’s style that his novel lends itself so well to this exercise. You have invented a completely new way of translating Candide: I hope one day we can publish it on the website of the Voltaire Foundation!

MR: Yes, translating Candide into tweets has really deepened my appreciation of his writing – it wouldn’t work so well with nineteenth-century authors. Every single sentence in Voltaire seems to advance the story, and yet stand alone as a sound-bite.

__________

CANDIDE APP-EAL

candideipad

Claire Trévien discussed in an earlier post the Candide iPad app which the Voltaire Foundation has produced in association with the Bibliothèque nationale de France and Orange. There have been over 7000 downloads since January, so if you haven’t seen it yet, take a look – it’s beautiful and free!

At the core of the app is René Pomeau’s critical edition of Candide published by the Voltaire Foundation (OCV, volume 48), but lots more has been added. A guiding idea behind the project was to make the text accessible to teenage readers (for example, by supplying a parallel set of annotations aimed specifically at that group), and to judge by the tweeted and blogged responses, it is succeeding. In what is certainly the best (and shortest) review ever given to a VF publication, one French fan has written that the app is “bien foutue”.

But the app is interesting to readers at all stages. You can listen to Candide as well as read it, and the actor Denis Podalydès gives a beautifully clear and cool reading. It’s great to discover the music of Voltaire’s prose: I find that hearing the text read aloud brings out nuances of humour and irony that I’ve missed in silent reading.

Another special feature of the app are the images of the La Vallière manuscript, which dates from 1758, the year before Candide was published. This manuscript has been well known since the 1950s, when it was discovered by Ira Wade, and for this app, the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal has made new high-resolution images. It is possible to study in a split screen images of the manuscript alongside the subsequent published version of the text, or to look at the manuscript on a full screen and even to enlarge any part of it.

The quality of the images is amazing: as you enlarge them, you can almost feel the secretary Wagnière writing as Voltaire dictated, and you can experience in close-up the moments when Voltaire in his own hand intervenes or corrects his secretary’s draft. In Chapter 1, we remember how Pangloss is introduced, as a teacher of “la métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie”. In the manuscript, we can see how Voltaire first tried “métaphisico-theolo-cosmolo-méologie”, then changed the last word to “mattologie” – here you can actually catch Voltaire in the process of inventing a new word. In Chapter 4, Candide recalls his love for Cunégonde: “il ne m’a jamais valu qu’un baiser et vingt coups de pied au cul”… When you look at the manuscript, you can see how the words “dans le cu” are added, in Voltaire’s own hand, as an afterthought, squeezed into the right-hand margin. Of course all this information is in the apparatus of the VF edition, but no description, however accurate, quite replaces the experience of looking at the original manuscript. Digital images of this quality give us a vivid sense of spying on Voltaire while he is writing.

Nicholas Cronk, Director

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