Voltaire editor, edited and re-edited

The first posthumous edition of Voltaire’s complete works, printed in Kehl in 1784 and financed by Beaumarchais, was recently the subject of a 900-page thesis (Linda Gil, Paris-Sorbonne, 2014). The latest volume of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, not lagging far behind, at 604 pages, also started life with this 70-volume edition as its focus, in particular the nearly 4000 pages that make up what the editors call the ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’. Under this title, made up in large part of Voltaire’s 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (later La Raison par alphabet) and the 1770-1772 Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, the Kehl editors included a number of previously unknown articles and fragments.

A manuscript of one of the texts in this volume (article ‘Ame’, in the hand of Voltaire’s secretary, Wagnière). Bibliothèque de Genève, Musée Voltaire: MS 34/1, f.1.

A manuscript of one of the texts in this volume (article ‘Ame’, in the hand of Voltaire’s secretary, Wagnière). Bibliothèque de Genève, Musée Voltaire: MS 34/1, f.1.

Our edition of these texts attempts to pin down what they were, when (and whether) Voltaire wrote them, whether certain groups can be discerned amongst them, and to what degree the printed record of the Kehl edition reflects the manuscripts that were actually found after Voltaire’s death – as much as is still possible, that is, after two hundred years have elapsed, and when most of the manuscript sources have long since disappeared.

As the volume moved through the stages of the editing and publishing process, it proved to be a protean thing, changing shape several times: some texts originally included in the original list of contents were found not to belong in the volume after all; others were discovered or moved in from elsewhere along the way; and once or twice new manuscripts unexpectedly came to light, changing the tentative dating and identification of one or another of the texts. What began as a simple alphabetically ordered series of about 45 texts eventually took shape as a book in four sections (of uneven length) which covers the ground of all posthumous additions to Voltaire’s ‘alphabetical works’, usually under the title ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’, from 1784, through the nineteenth-century, right up to the present day, in the form of a fragment that has in fact never before been published at all.

The chain of editorial decision-making goes further back in time than one initially realises, however, starting with Voltaire’s own apparent intention to produce a compendium of excerpts from other people’s works. As Bertram Schwarzbach adumbrated in 1982, twenty-four of the texts in this volume (with a possible twenty-fifth), show Voltaire (or one of his secretaries, perhaps?) re-working existing writings by others in what sometimes strongly resembles current practices of copying and pasting, much as we move sentences and parts of sentences around using a word processor. This in no way suggests that Voltaire was guilty of plagiarism: to begin with, he did not publish these re-workings in his own lifetime; furthermore, the boundaries of editing, re-publishing and re-purposing in the late eighteenth century were different than they are today. But the fact that these manuscripts were found amongst Voltaire’s papers meant that his early editors believed them to be by him (with one exception, ‘Fanatisme’, which they recognised as an abridged version of Deleyre’s Encyclopédie article). Thus were these texts eventually published under Voltaire’s name in the Kehl edition, leading to a (partly) unintentional distortion of the Voltairean canon, perpetuated in all subsequent editions until the Oxford Œuvres complètes. Questions such as these are soon to be addressed more generally in a one-day conference: ‘Editorialités: Practices of editing and publishing’, and Marian Hobson has written elsewhere about the value of critical editions. It is in part thanks to modern-day editorial work that the editor-generated puzzles of over two centuries ago are now being unpicked: a neat illustration of just how much the role of editor has changed in that time.

– Gillian Pink

Voltaire and the La Barre affair

250 years ago, on 1 July 1766, the young François-Jean Lefebvre de La Barre was executed in Abbeville, Picardy, having been charged with blasphemy in the summer of 1765. The first reference to La Barre in Voltaire’s correspondence is in a letter of 16 June 1766 to his great-nephew, Alexandre Marie François de Paule de Dompierre d’Hornoy. Voltaire then returned to La Barre’s execution in many letters and works: the Relation de la mort du chevalier de la Barre of 1766 and Le Cri du sang innocent of 1775 are entirely devoted to the La Barre affair.

This year’s Journées Voltaire took place in Paris on 17-18 June. Entitled ‘Autour de l’affaire La Barre’, they were organised by Myrtille Méricam-Bourdet (Université Lyon 2), in collaboration with the Société des Etudes Voltairiennes, the Centre d’Etude de la Langue et des Littératures Françaises (CELLF), and the Association Le Chevalier de La Barre.


Over the two days of the conference, attendees followed the gradual process that transformed La Barre from the victim of a dubious trial into a symbol of anti-clericalism, and the affair that ensued from a mere historical event into a revolutionary event in the Kantian sense.

The conference opened with a marvellously clear exposition of the trial’s proceedings by Eric Wenzel (Université d’Avignon). Eric Wenzel argued strongly that, if we except the fact that the question préalable was used in order to extort a confession, La Barre’s trial was actually conducted in accordance with the laws of Ancien Régime France. This begged the important question of what is right and what is – instead – legal.

Subsequent presentations focused on the role that Voltaire played in transforming La Barre into a symbol of anti-clericalism. Russell Goulbourne (King’s College, London) observed that Voltaire pursued this aim by dramatising the La Barre affair and by insistently describing La Barre himself as the hero of a tragedy: ‘M. le chevalier de la Barre est mort en héros. Sa fermeté noble et simple dans une si grande jeunesse m’arrache encore des larmes’ (to Jacques Marie Bertrand Gaillard d’Etallonde, 26 May 1767), and on multiple occasions comparing him to the hero of Corneille’s Polyeucte. The term ‘catastrophe’, with its connotations of tragedy, also appears in Voltaire’s discussion of the events at Abbeville (e.g. to Michel Paul Guy de Chabanon, 6 February 1771).

The tragic register, however, is not the only one Voltaire used when referring to La Barre’s execution. Two of the papers were concerned with how Voltaire’s response to the La Barre affair changed over time: Christiane Mervaud (Université de Rouen) demonstrated this evolution with reference to the article ‘Justice’ of the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, whereas Alain Sager focused mainly on Voltaire’s correspondence. The correspondence was also at the core of Laetitia Saintes’s (Université Catholique de Louvain) paper, which showed, in the context of letters dealing with the La Barre affair, how Voltaire modulated his tone according to addressee. New documents recently discovered in St Petersburg by Jack Iverson (Whitman College) will certainly cast new light on the reasons behind Voltaire’s re-writings of the La Barre affair.

Beyond the variations that Voltaire introduced into the retelling of events and his accusations of unfairness, the fact remains that his focus on the events at Abbeville succeeded impressively in magnifying their resonance. This is all the more important if one considers the utter indifference with which the Parisian public had originally received the news of La Barre’s execution. Voltaire himself complained about it in a letter to de Chabanon: ‘on va à l’opéra comique le jour qu’on brûle le chevalier de la Barre’ (7 August 1769).

Two papers at the conference therefore focused on how Voltaire’s writings prompted other intellectuals to engage with La Barre’s execution. Stéphanie Gehanne-Gavoty (Université Paris-Sorbonne) drew the audience’s attention to Friedrich Melchior Grimm’s treatment of the La Barre affair in the Correspondance littéraire. Linda Gil (Université Paris-Sorbonne) focused on Condorcet’s treatment, in the Kehl edition of Voltaire’s works, of the texts concerning La Barre, which fell into a newly created section,‘Politique et législation’, as well as on Condorcet’s own preface to that section.

As asserted by Charles Coutel (Université d’Artois; Association Le Chevalier de La Barre) in an enlightening paper, it was precisely by triggering such responses in the French intellectual elites that Voltaire succeeded in making a universal symbol out of the chevalier La Barre and a revolutionary event in the Kantian sense out of his execution. Thus, Coutel claimed, Voltaire’s reaction to La Barre’s death plainly testifies to the fact that humanity can progress even in the darkest times. As Voltaire put it in a letter of 26 September 1766 to the marquise d’Epinay, ‘le petit nombre de sages répandus dans Paris peut faire beaucoup de bien en s’élevant contre certaines atrocités, et en ramenant les hommes à la douceur et à la vertu’.

– Ruggero Sciuto

Le Dodo et le rhinocéros: Voltaire au pays des merveilles

Polémique sur les espèces en voie de disparition? Non. Fable de La Fontaine? Non plus… Il s’agit des illustrations du dernier tome des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. Les Questions ne parlent pas que de l’Encyclopédie. A travers les quelque 440 articles qui composent cet ouvrage on est confronté aux souvenirs personnels de l’auteur, aux lectures qui l’inspirent, à ses marottes, à ses réactions devant l’actualité entre 1770 et 1772. Inhabituellement, car Voltaire n’est pas particulièrement connu comme amateur des beaux-arts, il évoque, dans l’ultime volume de cet énorme regroupement d’articles, deux gravures, l’une représentant un rhinocéros, l’autre un dodo.


La première est célèbre; c’est le ‘Rhinocerus’ d’Albrecht Dürer. La référence chez Voltaire est cependant oblique. Dans le bel article ‘Rare’ il affirme que le rare ‘excite l’admiration’ et il poursuit: ‘Un curieux se préfère au reste des chétifs mortels quand il a dans son cabinet une médaille rare qui n’est bonne à rien, un livre rare que personne n’a le courage de lire, une vieille estampe d’Albert-dure, mal dessinée et mal empreinte’. Mais pourquoi penser qu’il y est question du rhinocéros? Deux pages plus loin, Voltaire achève son article en évoquant le rhinocéros Clara, dont l’étape parisienne, en 1749, de sa tournée européenne (1746-1758) fut commémorée par Jean-Baptiste Oudry (ci-dessus). Voltaire est au moins brièvement à Paris en 1749. A-t-il vu Clara? Il en aurait certainement entendu parler.

Le nom du dodo, connu dès le dix-septième siècle à partir des écrits d’explorateurs tels que Thomas Herbert et François Cauche, est comparé à Dôghdu, la mère du prophète Zoroastre, par le savant anglais Thomas Hyde, dans un livre que Voltaire possède dans sa bibliothèque, gravure à l’appui. Voltaire, qui prend plaisir à tourner en dérision les mythes, ne résiste pas à la tentation de resserrer le lien dans son propre article ‘Zoroastre’, où il fait mention explicite de la gravure qu’il a vue dans son exemplaire: ‘Pour sa mère, il n’y a pas deux options, elle s’appelait Dogdu, ou Dodo, ou Dodu; c’était une très belle poule d’Inde: elle est fort bien dessinée chez le docteur Hyde’.

Sur le plan zoologique, outre le dodo et le rhinocéros, les Questions consacrent des articles aux abeilles, au bouc, au chien, aux colimaçons, au serpent… Si Christiane Mervaud n’avait pas déjà écrit ses Bestiaires de Voltaire, le sujet serait à inventer.


Les Questions sur l’Encyclopédie

-Gillian Pink

Superstition springs eternal

We always say that Voltaire’s battles are far from over in the twenty-first century, but I usually think more of religious intolerance than of deeply ingrained superstition. A few weeks ago Sanal Edamaruku spoke in Oxford, hosted by Skeptics in the Pub, and made it clear that superstition is still a dangerous problem in parts of the world today, using a specific example from modern-day Mumbai. Alongside modern architecture and technological innovation in this emerging market, there remains a disturbingly large segment of the population in the thrall of potentially lethal religious practices, for example dipping infants in hot oil, or throwing them down from a temple roof to the dubious safety of a raised sheet below, in a gesture of thanksgiving for divine favours received. Edamaruku explained to us that he is currently unable to return to India because of an arrest warrant brought against him under an outdated nineteenth-century blasphemy law on the instigation of Roman Catholic bishops in Mumbai. All of this for having revealed that a ‘weeping’ crucifix was caused by a blockage in a sewage pipe, a finding which should instead be hailed as a contribution to public health, since church-goers had been collecting the ‘tears’ in bottles and vials as holy relics.

In late 1771, Voltaire wrote the article ‘Superstition’ for his work Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. In this article he heaps ridicule on just such ‘miracles’ as the blood of St Januarius, contained in a phial in Naples Cathedral and said to liquefy each year when brought into close proximity of the relic of the saint’s head. In the article ‘Vision’, written a few months later in 1772, he lashes out against charlatans who seek ‘a reputation as holy men or women, which is very flattering, or to make money, which is even more flattering’… Edamaruku has also exposed a number of religious frauds in this category.

While the battle cry of ‘Ecrasez l’infâme’ may have evolved into something less martial today, the crusade to debunk false prophets carries on. I’ll be following the progress of Edamaruku’s world tour with interest, and I hope that he will succeed in having the blasphemy charges dropped and/or the law reformed.