Micromégas: objet littéraire non identifié

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

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

Titre de départ d'une édition de Micromégas de 1778

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Future of ruins past: Syria and Italy

At the beginning of his 1791 Les Ruines, Constantin-François de Volney describes himself sitting amidst the ruins of Palmyra, on the edge of the Syrian desert. As his gaze shifts back and forth between the ancient monuments and the open horizon, he sinks into a profound reverie. It is the beginning of a long meditation on the principles that govern the rise and fall of civilizations.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, before its destruction. (Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

A thriving cosmopolitan city in which the Persian and Greco-Roman worlds merged in complex ways, Palmyra was at its height between the first and second centuries AD. Its ruins, a destination for countless European travellers from the seventeenth century onward, bore witness to its greatness. Volney, like many others before him, was fascinated and at the same time dismayed by the sight. For him the ruins of Palmyra evoked not only the glorious past of an ancient Empire, but also a possible future for the great Western civilizations. They echoed the fragility itself of human society, and their shattered architecture was the material embodiment of the incessant cycles of history. By observing the rubble of the past, visitors were also stimulated to reflect on the causes that led a people to ruination. The knowledge of ruins past – for Volney – could help nations avert the eventual collapse of civilization.

ff N5740 .P49 v.1-4 Le Antichita Romane...

Figure 5: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of the subterranean foundations of the Mausoleum built by the Emperor Hadrian, Le Antichità romane (1756), vol.4, pl.9. High Def image also available to view on line.

The ruins of Palmyra are today under attack. As the ancient city has become a battlefield in the war between the Syrian regime and ISIS, we have seen its architectural heritage disappear – razed to the ground with explosives. The latest to fall, after the temples of Baalshamin and of Bel, was the 2000-year-old Arch of Triumph. The eighteenth-century etcher Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose depictions of ruined landscapes are still so eloquent, was convinced that ruins had a voice and that they would continue to speak to our imaginations over the centuries. The ruins of Palmyra are powerful, stirring symbols and the fighters of ISIS must fear their collective voice if they are now trying to silence it once and for all. There is a sense of both disbelief and horror that seizes us at the thought of a piece of our collective history being ruthlessly destroyed.

In my book Ruins past: modernity in Italy, 1744-1836 I discuss the layered symbolism of ruins in Italy during its transition to modernity between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I explore how the multiple meanings assumed by ruins are inextricable from the way we think about history, the relationship between past, present, and future, and categories such as progress and change. Ruins are never neutral symbols. If their destruction is an act of war, it is one aimed at rewriting history.

ff N5740 .P49 v.1-4 Le Antichita Romane...

Figure 6: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View showing a part of the foundations of the Theater of Marcellus, Le Antichità romane (1756), vol.4, pl.32. HD image.

As George Orwell suggested, far more terrible than the power that desires to control the future is one that attempts to dominate the past as well [1]. By erasing ruins, historical memory is destroyed. There is no more effective way of delegitimizing the present in order to lay the ground for a new regime and its new historical narrative. While the preservation (and reinvention) of its ancient ruins was both a poetic and a political act in Italy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in Syria today it is an imperative of salvation.

There is some hope on the horizon. In October 2015, a group of activists started #NEWPALMYRA, an online archive of 3-D models that reproduce Palmyra’s monuments with the aim of “rebuilding” the city. The Oxford Institute of Digital Archaeology has also launched the Million Image Database project, whose goal is to construct a 3-D photographic record of objects from endangered sites across the Middle East and North Africa, including Palmyra. To save the ruins of the past is an act of resistance crucial to saving the future.

– Sabrina Ferri

OSE-2015-12-50pc

Sabrina Ferri, Ruins past: modernity in Italy, 1744-1836. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, December 2015. ISBN 978-0-7294-1171-4.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] See George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’ (1943), in Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays. See also Orwell, 1984 (1949).

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment – what’s in a name?

jean-franc3a7ois-de-troy-the-reading-from-moliere-c-1728

Jean-François de Troy, ‘Reading from Molière’, c.1728, Collection Marchioness of Cholmondeley .

As it enters its sixtieth year, and approaches its 550th volume, SVEC is changing its name; from 2014 the series will be known as Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.  

A change of name, yes, but not a change of direction. Over the last few years, the series has published leading research relating not only to France, but also to the UK, Germany and Spain, Russia and Greece, Africa and America; and it has encouraged work across a broad range of disciplines – economics and science, political and cultural history, music and the visual arts, literature and publishing -, as well as promoting new areas of research such as environmental studies.

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This editorial policy is quite consistent with the eighteenth century itself, which was constantly crossing boundaries of language, of nation and of discipline. Distinctions we might wish to make between, for instance, exception and rule, reason and emotion, functional and ornamental, laughter and tears, are all questioned in this period.  The Enlightenment is not about a single discipline, methodology, geographical terrain, intellectual position, or even about a defined period; it is an extensive process of exploration, exchange, and transgression.

The title Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment reflects those editorial principles and that intellectual practice.  The fact that the series is published by the Voltaire Foundation, a department of the University of Oxford and birthplace of the Electronic Enlightenment project, could not be more apt. Voltaire was one of the most interdisciplinary and international of writers, who thought beyond intellectual, cultural or even chronological boundaries.

It is in this spirit that the first book of the newly renamed series, India and Europe in the global eighteenth century, looks afresh at the relations between Europe and India using both eastern and western sources to explore the emergence of a new political and commercial order. From their home in Oxford University, Studies in the Enlightenment are well and truly global.

-JM

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).