‘The princely progress of the human race’: Guido Maria Brera’s new Candido

La Nave di Teseo, the François vase (Museo Archeologico, Florence).

La nave di Teseo – The ship of Theseus: that is the name of the publishing house which brought out, no more than a few months ago, Guido Maria Brera’s latest novel: Candido. The ship of Theseus, just like the ship that, as reported by Plutarch, the people of Athens busily renovated agan and again, and which, however, they stubbornly kept claiming to be the very one that bore the son of Aegeus back to Greece. No name would have been more appropriate: Brera’s Candido is at the same time Voltaire’s Candide and something quite different. Animated by a quintessentially Voltairian verve, which Sciascia had also brilliantly rendered in his own, Sicily-set, work of the same name, Brera’s Candido is a profoundly disillusioned reflection on some of the problems affecting modern (Italian) society. It is a harsh critique of a certain model of ‘development’, presented as inevitably leading to increased inequality and, ultimately, totalitarianism.

Guido Maria Brera: Candido.

Brera’s Candido is a rider, an English word that the Italians have made their own and use to refer to a (food) delivery person (and, by extension, to any underpaid ‘slaves of the gig economy’). He is a rider in a post-pandemic, post-recession, dystopic, unnamed yet easily recognisable Milan, with its ‘old gothic church’ and its bosco verticale. Much like in Orwell’s London, streets in Brera’s Milan are dotted with telescreens, ceaselessly broadcasting the ruling Party’s propaganda. Pangloss, the Party’s spokesman lecturing from the telescreens, tirelessly repeats ‘tutto è bene, tutto va bene’ (‘all is well, everything is going well’), a sentence that grotesquely mimics the slogan written on many of the banners hanging down Italian balconies at the peak of the covid-19 pandemic: ‘andrà tutto bene’.

He further adds that being pessimistic or negative is a sure way of making the world a worse place, and that work and dedication are sure ways of hitting the big time and becoming free – one might almost be tempted to write this last bit in German. Surrounded by these gigantic telescreens, Candido rides happily on his bicycle to deliver food and drinks to the people in the Inner Neighbourhoods. The more food and drinks he delivers, he cheerfully reasons, the more credits he will earn, and the more credits he earns, the more time he will be able to spend in his little bedroom, chatting with his much-beloved Cunegonda. Little does he care or indeed realise that his Cunegonda is but a hologram generated by Voltaire, the ruling Party’s social network, which, one cannot help but noticing, is somehow reminiscent of another, much-debated Italian online platform, also named after a prominent eighteenth-century thinker, Rousseau.

One of thousands of pandemic banners: ‘All will be well’.

Completely out of place in such a dehumanised social reality, a bit like Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo in post-war, booming Turin, Brera’s Candido is, however, fully integrated in the totalitarian system he lives in. Plus royaliste que le roi, plus candide que Candide, he makes the Party’s slogans his own. To his fellow riders complaining about the hardship of their condition, Candido replies with some of Pangloss’s best quotes; he reminds them that to deliver food is to contribute to the wellbeing of humankind, and that they would not complain so much if they only dared to be a bit more positive about life. When they look at him in astonishment, their mouths agape, he smiles and walks away, glad to have imparted some much-needed wisdom. Likewise, when his mother is compelled to sublet her own bedroom to make up for the credits he can no longer earn – he has been spotted in the company of some protesters and unjustly fired – Candido cannot help but rejoice that his old woman is no longer alone in the house.

Italian gig economy workers demonstrate for labour rights (Financial Times).

Eventually invited to take up an internship in the Voltaire headquarters, Candido is finally about to prove the world that he was right all along, and that everything is indeed for the best: he performs brilliantly and is soon promoted to the highest positions. And yet, just as the internship is about to come to a close, a sudden, momentary ‘glitch’ unveils the bleakness and squalor of the world he lives in: much like Alcina’s palace in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, the seemingly idyllic Voltaire headquarters are revealed to be the monstrous seat of corruption. Confirmed in his intuition by bookseller Martino, Candido hurries to apologise to his mother and friends. A modern, more proactive, but perhaps equally self-destructive Bartleby, Candido begins to say no and stand up against the system. He joins a massive protest and… well, I am not a huge fan of spoilers and have no wish to hurt any of my four readers. But it is worth noting that other countries are much more advanced than Italy in their race to becoming large gig economies, and that, unfortunately, even academia appears to have been dragged down that direful path. Oh, ‘magnifiche sorti e progressive’!

– Ruggero Sciuto

For action! A bibliography of d’Holbach studies

Paul-Henri Thiry, baron d’Holbach, by Louis Carmontelle.

Following the release of Tout d’Holbach in March 2020, the Voltaire Foundation is continuing to produce research tools that we hope will prove beneficial to anyone out there working on the Radical Enlightenment and d’Holbach more specifically. The latest arrival, we are happy to announce, is a selected bibliography of mostly 20th- and 21st-century scholarly publications on the Baron d’Holbach and his works. Counting almost 200 entries and intended primarily as a tool for anyone working on the Digital d’Holbach project, this bibliography includes links to online resources, where available, and hopes to grow larger in the next few months thanks to the support of the many colleagues worldwide who share our interest in the works of the Baron. Should you wish your new publications to be featured in the bibliography, or to report any mistakes or omissions, please contact Ruggero Sciuto. Thanks in advance for your help!

Looking forward, the Voltaire Foundation also hopes to release a full list of pre-1789 editions of d’Holbach’s publications with hyperlinks to digitised copies on Googlebooks, HathiTrust, or Gallica, as well as a searchable catalogue of d’Holbach’s library, which was famously dispersed at an auction in 1789. Stay tuned!

P.S. for the Diderot fans among us: Prof Caroline Warman (Jesus College, Oxford) will present her latest book on Diderot’s Eléments de physiologie at 5 pm UK time on 18 June 2021. For more on this event and a registration link please click here.

Ruggero Sciuto

Left: Alan Charles Kors, D’Holbach’s coterie: an Enlightenment in Paris (Princeton, 1976); centre: Alain Sandrier, Le Style philosophique du baron d’Holbach (Paris, 2004); right: Mladen Kozul, Les Lumières imaginaires: Holbach et la traduction (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment 2016:05).

Annotation in scholarly editions and research

It has been, alas, almost exactly a year since our last face-to-face Besterman Workshop at 99 Banbury Road. Of course, webinars allow more people to join, and to do so, most importantly, from the comfort of their homes, where they can sit comfortably and set their thermostats to the temperature that suits them best. The advent of the Zoom/Teams era, however, has brought with it a number of unfortunate consequences: discussions are not as lively as they used to be, asking a follow-up question is nearly impossible, and so are chats with friends and colleagues, before, during, or after the talk. Worst of all, we no longer get a chance to eat our beloved Leibniz or Belgian biscuits – but those, to be fair, had already become something of a rarity towards the beginning of 2018. Anyway: those of you who did attend our last face-to-face Besterman Workshops may remember this gloomy and cumbersome poster of mine hanging from the mantelpiece.

This poster was presented at a conference in Wuppertal, Germany, at the end of February 2019: ‘Annotation in Scholarly Editions and Research: Function – Differentiation – Systematization’. Organised by Julia Nantke (Universität Hamburg) and Frederik Schlupkothen (Bergische Universität Wuppertal), this two-day bilingual Anglo-German colloquium was a wonderful occasion to reflect on the age-old human habit of glossing, commenting, and generally interfering with other people’s work.

Alongside some theoretical papers (to mention but one, Willard McCarty’s brilliant keynote lecture on annotation as a knowledge-producing practice), the symposium featured several more practice-oriented talks that would have certainly been of interest to many of our Digital Humanities followers: some focused on how best to structure and visualise annotation in digital scholarly editions; others raised the question as to how to annotate audio-visual materials; and yet others investigated the extent to which annotation can be automated.

Some of the papers given at the ‘Annotation in Scholarly Editions and Research’ conference can now be read in a volume published last year (yes, in 2020!) by De Gruyter and available in print as well as an Open Access eBook.

My own contribution to the volume (which you can find here, should you want to read it) presents what I think might be an efficient and user-friendly three-level annotation system, the ‘reversible annotation system’, which I developed while working on Digital d’Holbach, a born-digital scholarly edition of Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach’s complete works. On this model, I argue, a single set of notes can be so structured as to cater to very different audiences, meaning that the edition can hope simultaneously to be user-friendly and cost-efficient. Should you have any comments or suggestions for improvement, please do not hesitate to let me know!

Ruggero Sciuto, University of Oxford

Introducing Tout d’Holbach

Have you ever used Tout Voltaire or the ARTFL Encyclopédie and thought: ‘Wow! This is so helpful!’? Have you ever planned on giving a Zoom talk on pandemics in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and realised that all you had to do to get your primary sources was to search the database for ‘peste’, ‘pestilent.*’, ‘épidémi.*’, nothing more? Or maybe you wanted to write an article on Voltaire and dodos? You looked up ‘dodo’ in Tout Voltaire, and it only took you about three seconds to realise that you had pushed your quest for originality a bit too far. Have you ever wished that something like Tout Voltaire existed also for other authors? Well, if you work on d’Holbach, we’ve got good news for you!

The ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago and the Voltaire Foundation are very pleased to announce the release of Tout d’Holbach, a database that brings together fully searchable transcriptions of the vast majority of d’Holbach’s works. (If at this point you cannot be bothered to read more and wish to start experimenting with the database right away, here is the link: https://artfl-project.uchicago.edu/tout-d-holbach.)

At the moment, Tout d’Holbach only includes d’Holbach’s original writings, defined as those considered to be ‘œuvres originales publiées isolément’ (‘original works published separately’) in Jeroom Vercruysse’s fundamental Bibliographie descriptive des imprimés du baron d’Holbach (1971; new ed. 2017) (The Essai sur les préjugés and the Tableau des saints are not there yet, but they will be soon! We promise!). Moving forward, full transcriptions of d’Holbach’s translations and editions, respectively marked as Ds and Fs in Vercruysse’s bibliography, will be added, making the database more worthy of its high-sounding name.  At the same time, we are also thinking about making Tout d’Holbach a bit less ‘d’Holbach’: adding to the database texts whose attribution to the Baron is highly controversial will put us, we hope, in a position to better understand the real contours of d’Holbach’s textual corpus, thus answering a question that has occupied scholars’ minds for more than two centuries.

Thanks to the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Voltaire Foundation is currently working on a born-digital critical edition of d’Holbach’s writings: Digital d’Holbach. Unlike Digital d’Holbach, Tout d’Holbach is not a critical edition: none of the texts is annotated, and the transcriptions, while broadly accurate, may contain occasional typos. Tout d’Holbach is a research tool, and one, we hope, that will prove invaluable to researchers collaborating on Digital d’Holbach as well as to scholars working on the European Enlightenment more broadly.

So, here is the link again for those of you who haven’t yet given in to temptation and already clicked on it: https://artfl-project.uchicago.edu/tout-d-holbach.

P.S. If you have some time to spare while you #stayathome and would like to contribute to the project by checking the transcription of a section of one of d’Holbach’s works, or if you would like to know more about Digital d’Holbach, please email Ruggero Sciuto at ruggero.sciuto@voltaire.ox.ac.uk.

– Ruggero Sciuto and Clovis Gladstone