Trolling in the eighteenth century: a case study

Voltaire, over the course of his long career, had a taste for publishing works under pseudonyms: perhaps most famously, M. le docteur Ralph, author of Candide, in whose pockets additions to the tale were supposedly found after the good doctor’s death. Also the rabbi Akib, the abbé Bazin, M. de Morza, to list but a few of his many noms de plume. More than a strategy to deflect the consequences of his more provocative and controversial writings (the anonymous Twitter handles and ‘sock-puppet accounts’ of the day), the practice also gave him playful enjoyment in the sheer variety of names and personas that he adopted.

J.-J. Le Franc de Pompignan (Anonymous), Hotel d’Assézat, Toulouse.

J.-J. Le Franc de Pompignan (Anonymous), Hotel d’Assézat, Toulouse.

All of Voltaire’s pseudonyms were not imaginary characters, however, and in the early days of 1764 a letter appeared in print, apparently a reply from his secretary Wagnière to one Ladouz, former secretary of one of Voltaire’s arch-enemies, the academician Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan (who in 1763 had arranged for his local church to be restored, an enterprise which provided Voltaire with the opportunity to poke fun in a series of amusing pamphlets). This Ladouz has supposedly written to Voltaire, seeking a formal attestation that he has not betrayed his erstwhile employer by sending compromising documents to Ferney.

Ladouz has not betrayed his master’s confidence, ‘Wagnière’ confirms; his own master’s knowledge of Mr Le Franc de Pompignan is confined to:

1. Some rather bad verse;

2. His speech to the Académie Française, in which he insults all men of letters;

3. A memorandum to the king in which he tells His Majesty that he has a fine library at Pompignan-lès-Montauban;

4. The description of a magnificent celebration that he organised at Pompignan, the procession in which he walked behind a young Jesuit, accompanied by local pipers, and the great feast for twenty-six that was the talk of the province;

5. A beautiful sermon of his own composition, in which he is said to be amongst the stars in the firmament, whilst the clergymen of Paris and all men of letters are in the mud at his feet.

If indeed Ladouz did write to Voltaire, the letter provided an excellent pretext to trot out again these lines of ridicule, which had already appeared under Voltaire’s own pen the year before. The Lettre du secrétaire de M. de Voltaire, au secrétaire de M. Le Franc de Pompignan may have begun life as a genuine letter, as the editor of his correspondence, Theodore Besterman, tells us, but anyone familiar with Voltaire’s writings against Le Franc will recognise the style and content of the Lettre. In fact, the author wrote to D’Alembert on the subject of the Lettre, quoting Renaissance poet Clément Marot (D11628):

     Monsieur l’abbé et monsieur son valet
     Sont faits égaux, tous deux comme de cire.

Lettre_small

Drop-title of the Lettre du secrétaire de M. de Voltaire (Bibliothèque nationale de France, 8-LN27-12065).

If anything, this aptly quoted verse is a tacit sign that his secretary has lent him his name – although even after the master’s death, Wagnière took responsibility for the piece. So was this then in fact a real letter, or does the epistolary form only serve further to broadcast material ridiculing Le Franc in a different guise and from a – supposedly – different pen? If it was a letter, how does its publication fit with eighteenth-century epistolary protocols?

The Lettre du secrétaire appears in Voltaire’s correspondence (D11616), and also appears in his complete works since the piece benefitted from a separate publication at his hands. This new edition has the advantage of focussing attention on the ambiguities of such a document, a short text that would otherwise be lost in the great mass of Voltaire’s writings and letters. It is published this month, along with the Lettre de M. de L’Ecluse, the Hymne chanté au village de Pompignan, the Relation du voyage de M. le marquis Le Franc de Pompignan, the Lettre de Paris, du 28 février 1763 and an Avis des editeurs, under the umbrella title ‘Writings on Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan’ in OCV, volume 57A.

– G.P.

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Who’s got the last laugh now?

Maupertuis

Maupertuis by Robert Levrac-Tournières and Jean Daullé, 1741 (Paris, BnF)

One of the bitterest and most famous of the many quarrels that Voltaire was involved in during his long life was the one that pitted him against Maupertuis from 1752 onwards. The quarrel started while both men were living at Frederick the Great’s court, Maupertuis as the president of the Académie de Berlin and Voltaire as Frederick’s personal guest.

The details of the dispute itself are too intricate to be exposed here but can be found in Voltaire’s Histoire du docteur Akakia, a collection of texts which were both a response to and a continuation of this quarrel. The dispute eventually saw the king of Prussia himself intervene on behalf of the president of his Académie, and damaged almost irreparably the friendship between Voltaire and his crowned admirer. The quarrel also seriously damaged Maupertuis’s reputation as a scientist, as Voltaire conducted a relentless campaign of denigration aimed at both his enemy’s character and writings, which continued well after his foe’s demise in 1759.

The wit and sarcasm deployed by Voltaire against Maupertuis overshadowed the latter’s undeniable contribution to the scientific advances of his century and the visionary aspect of some of his writings. Among Voltaire’s recurring targets for mockery is the idea proposed by the scientist that drilling a hole to the centre of the Earth would be of enormous interest to science.[1] For all of Voltaire’s scathing gibes at what he repeatedly described as the fanciful notions of a madman, modern science has now vindicated the much-maligned Maupertuis, not his formidable detractor, as can be seen in an article published in The New Scientist. Similarly, the hypothesis that some celestial bodies might contain diamonds which the scientist formulated in his Œuvres and which Voltaire dutifully ridiculed does not sound that far-fetched to modern-day astronomers.

No doubt Maupertuis would have welcomed these new developments, more than two and a half centuries after his scientific intuitions were so mercilessly and relentlessly mocked by Voltaire.

Georges Pilard

[1] in his Œuvres de M. de Maupertuis (1752).