Obstinément Voltaire. La redécouverte en Suisse d’un portrait par Jean Huber

L’heureuse rencontre de deux personnalités tout à fait hors du commun est à l’origine d’une suite de portraits de Voltaire – silhouettes, dessins, gravures, aquarelles, conversation pieces à l’huile délicieuses – d’une remarquable modernité (la plupart de ces petits tableaux à l’huile ont été achetés par Catherine de Russie, du vivant de Voltaire, et ils sont conservés à l’Ermitage, à Saint-Pétersbourg). D’un côté nous avons le philosophe, désormais au seuil de la vieillesse et au faîte de sa célébrité, recherchant une demeure dans les alentours de Genève sur les rives du lac Léman, de l’autre Jean Huber (Chambésy 1721-1786 Lausanne) qui fait sa connaissance par hasard.

Issu de la meilleure société genevoise, d’origine huguenote, appartenant au milieu financier international, Jean Huber n’a rien du sérieux légèrement apprêté de ses concitoyens. Au contraire, il est d’un naturel vif, imprévisible, plein d’humour, aux multiples intérêts et à l’aise partout: il a tout pour séduire le philosophe. Jean Huber avait reçu l’éducation typique de son rang, séjour à l’étranger, d’abord à la cour du landgrave de Hesse-Kassel puis dans le Piémont chez Charles-Emmanuel III, roi de Sardaigne. Il aimait jouer de la musique, chasser au faucon, oiseau dont il étudiait scientifiquement le comportement; il se consacrait aussi à la peinture, sans avoir jamais pris de leçons.

L’amitié entre les deux hommes durera une vingtaine d’années, avec des hauts et des bas, exacerbés par leurs fortes personnalités. Ils arriveront à se voir presque quotidiennement: Huber est d’abord hôte aux Délices, la charmante propriété genevoise que Voltaire occupera pendant quatre ans, puis au château de Ferney.

Témoin de l’activité frénétique du patriarche s’adonnant à ses activités champêtres de ‘monarque sans couronne’, débordant de projets et recevant régulièrement des visiteurs venus de toute l’Europe, un observateur aussi fin que Huber ne pouvait manquer d’être frappé par la physionomie de Voltaire, par ses innombrables expressions faciales, et par l’énergie déployée par l’homme maigrissime et vieillissant, fragile et tremblotant, mais soutenu par une détermination hors du commun.

Il était inévitable que tôt ou tard Huber se mettrait au travail armé de papier et de ciseaux pour découper des silhouettes du philosophe, lui qui était passé maître dans cette forme artistique. Par la suite Jean Huber produisit aussi croquis, dessins, et de nombreuses gravures représentant son ami philosophe, toujours dans le but presque obsessionnel de s’approcher le plus possible de la vérité de ce visage aux mille expressions, tour à tour émerveillé, fâché, mort de fatigue, autoritaire, sarcastique, déçu, méprisant, pensif… et toujours théâtral.

Ses croquis sont loin des nombreuses représentations officielles du célèbre homme de lettres, les yeux investigateurs levés vers le ciel. Chez Huber, l’intention est diamétralement opposée. D’une façon inédite et très moderne, il veut nous restituer simplement l’être humain avec son sarcasme, ses défauts, ses mauvaises humeurs, ses peurs, sa mélancolie face au temps qui passe… Ce peintre détaille aussi scrupuleusement les mises très drôles de Voltaire, ‘à faire pouffer de rire’, et les perruques démodées à la Louis XIV que le patriarche adopte à Ferney, et dont lui-même est le premier à s’amuser.

Quand à Paris ces gravures très recherchées se diffusent, la patience de Voltaire est à bout, non pas parce qu’il aspire à la discrétion mais parce que, selon lui, Huber l’exploite en se moquant de lui, et en en tirant par-dessus le marché toute la gloire possible… et le philosophe le fait savoir publiquement, par exemple dans l’Epître CXIV: A Horace. Huber sent alors qu’il doit se défendre rapidement, notamment parce qu’il tient trop à cette amitié, qui, en effet, sera rétablie par la suite: ‘Ne concevrez-vous pas qu’il faut des ombres à votre portrait, qu’il faut des contrastes à une lumière que personne ne pourrait soutenir […] Je vous ai dit cent fois que je savais précisément la dose de ridicule qu’il fallait à votre gloire. Il est de fait que depuis quinze ans que selon vous, monsieur, je travaille à la ternir, elle n’a fait que croître et embellir […] Imitez le bon Dieu qui n’en fait que rire’ (Lettre de Huber à Voltaire, 30 octobre 1772).

Voltaire, par Jean Huber et Andrienne Cannac.

Voltaire, par Jean Huber et Andrienne Cannac. Collection particulière, Suisse.

A la rencontre de Voltaire et Huber, rencontre aussi passionnante qu’unique, se rattache la découverte d’un ‘nouveau’ portrait de Voltaire à l’aquarelle, découpé, dans une niche Louis XVI brodée (troisième quart du dix-huitième siècle), accroché depuis toujours dans le château d’Hauteville (sur Vevey), et vendu aux enchères du château en 2015.

Jean Huber a fréquenté à plusieurs reprises cette magnifique propriété de goût italien. Située sur les ravissantes collines du lac Léman, elle appartenait à Pierre-Philippe Cannac. Provenant d’une famille huguenote d’origine lyonnaise qui avait cherché refuge en Suisse à la suite de la révocation de l’édit de Nantes, Pierre-Philippe s’était marié avec la genevoise Andrienne Cannac née Huber, tante de Jean. Ils entretenaient des rapports affectueux avec leur neveu espiègle et hors du commun, en particulier pendant les vacances d’été à Hauteville, où d’autres découpages de Huber ont été trouvés.

Comme divertissement estival, ce portrait singulier – on ne connaît qu’un autre portrait de Voltaire à l’aquarelle par Huber sur carton découpé[1] – a été réalisé à quatre mains, conjuguant ainsi le savoir-faire du neveu et celui de Mme Cannac, dans le domaine de la broderie des vêtements et de la niche. Le but aurait été de montrer leur adhésion à la pensée voltairienne, en exhibant aussi la parenté entre les Cannac et les Huber.

Ce tableau mérite toute notre attention parce que sa découverte et son attribution ajoutent un chaînon significatif au répertoire de l’œuvre de Jean Huber.

– Silvia Mazzoleni

[1] Grimm, Diderot et al., Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, éd. M. Tourneux, t.10 (Paris, 1879), p.98-99.

 

Advertisements

Voltaire among the popes

The Avignon festival: July 2019

Walking through Urban V’s orchard-garden in the shadow of the Palais des Papes, I didn’t expect to find the faces of Voltaire and Madame Du Châtelet fluttering to the ground on a publicity flier. But the ‘Avignon off’ (the French equivalent of the Edinburgh Fringe with sun) is full of unlikely spectacles. Emilie du Châtelet et Voltaire avant Beauvoir et Sartre was one of them. In the tiny salle of the Théâtre de la Carreterie, author/performer Katell Grabowska interspersed readings from letters in the Voltaire Correspondence with song and narrative, in a laudable attempt to celebrate Madame Du Châtelet as a mathematician and Newton’s translator. (Voltaire, de Beauvoir and Sartre were in attendance only to sex up the title.) It might have worked. Grabowska had done her homework well and the music was lively. But theatricality was another matter. Text dominated performance, leaving any non-Voltairean bemused by a zigzag timeline, bewildered by a catalogue of mysterious pop-up characters – Thiriot, d’Argental, Algarotti – and alas! far from bewitched by a show which needed the sparkle of Émilie’s knuckleduster diamonds to give it some pizzazz.

Not so the Troupuscule Theatre’s version of Candide. Their ‘road-movie’ musical was aimed at a school-age audience and performed at 11 a.m. in the unpromising surroundings of the Préau (recreation space) in the Collège de la Salle, just inside the city ramparts. But as spectators took their seats, they were exuberantly welcomed and plied with flutes of fizz. Yes, really – it was Cunégonde’s birthday! Joie de vivre was the keynote of the show, but clever staging, inspired by seventeenth-century street theatre, hinted (like the conte itself) at the darkness beyond the rocambolesque. Candide’s naked back was painted with the stripes of flogging, and as he littered the stage with corpses (who promptly jumped up and rummaged for their hats), the clashing of swords still rang in our ears. The cast played it for laughs and were rewarded by gleeful squealing from their young spectators, but the underlying message of the conte was omnipresent.

Of the three Voltairean spectacles, however, it was the Odyssée Theatre’s adaptation of L’Ingénu as a one-man show which stole the limelight. Jean-Christophe Barbaud, the metteur en scène, and Thomas Willaime, who performed it, had harnessed the dramatic potential of Voltaire’s text to produce a narrative that stayed remarkably loyal to the letter as well as the spirit of the conte. The minimalist black-and-white set was the perfect vehicle for Willaime’s extraordinary athleticism and emotional power. He morphed effortlessly into different characters: the audience chortled as the unsuspecting Huron stripped off for his baptism, smiled indulgently at the good-natured self-delusion of Mademoiselle de Kerkabon, and shared the hero’s fury as he was unjustly flung into the Bastille. But it was the hushed auditorium when Willaime enacted the self-sacrifice of Saint-Yves that most clearly demonstrated the quality of both adaptation and performance. It was a tour de force, and to see the audience rising to applaud in a theatre packed to capacity was a gratifying reminder that Voltaire’s works do not lie mouldering and unread on the library shelves of his twenty-first-century compatriots.

It so happens that both Candide and L’Ingénu are on next year’s agrégation syllabus, so the contes will find new generations of readers, actors and directors among future students. The Papal City has surely not seen the last of Barons, Grand Inquisitors and love-lorn young innocents.

– Adrienne Mason

How to tell a king he writes bad verse

Frederick II

The only portrait Frederick ever personally sat for (by Ziesenis, 1763).

In 1750, Voltaire travelled to the court of the Prussian king, Frederick II. There, one of his official duties would be to correct the king’s writings in French, in particular his poetry: to ‘bleach his dirty linen’, as Voltaire would later write in his epistolary half-fiction, Paméla, never published in his lifetime. However, at the outset, very willing, Voltaire wrote to the king around August of that year:

‘Si vous aimez des critiques libres, si vous souffrez des éloges sincères, si vous voulez perfectionner un ouvrage que vous seul dans l’Europe êtes capable de faire, votre majesté n’a qu’à ordonner à un solitaire de monter.
Ce solitaire est aux ordres de votre majesté pour toutte sa vie.’

The French poet knew how to be tactful, and though he sent back pages of corrections, he balanced them with flattery. Referring to Frederick’s Art de la guerre, he wrote the following summer: ‘Tout l’ouvrage est digne de vous, et quand je n’aurais fait le voyage que pour voir quelque chose d’aussi singulier, je ne devrais pas regretter ma patrie’. The corrected manuscript of l’Art de la guerre still exists and can be seen in Berlin at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Unfortunately, the heavily marked up volumes of the king’s Poésies have disappeared, following the Allied bombing of the Monbijou Palace in Berlin during the Second World War. The latest volume of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire attempts to reconstruct those corrections, however, as part of its complement to the Russian-led publication of Voltaire’s marginalia, the Corpus des notes marginales, a final volume that assembles the known marginal notes housed outside the main collection of the writer’s library in the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg.

This volume, Notes et écrits marginaux conservés hors de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie (OCV, vol.145), brings together a motley collection of such documents. Some, such as Frederick’s poetry, were intended for use by friends and were never part of Voltaire’s own collection. Another such case is that of the annotated copy of a work by Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues (also discussed by Sam Bailey), or the manuscript on the rights of French Protestants to marry by the future statesman Joseph-Marie Portalis. Other books, such as a volume of Rousseau’s Emile, or a volume of Le Vrai Sens du système de la nature, by pseudo-Helvétius, seem to have been distributed as gifts by Voltaire, and the notes within give hints of having been conceived for that very purpose. Others still may in fact have parted ways with Voltaire’s personal collection, either before it left France, or in Russia (two works, the first Fénelon’s Œuvres philosophiques, and the second an Essai général de tactique by Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte, comte de Guibert, were borrowed from the Hermitage library by Tsar Alexander I, and never returned).

But the largest component of the lot remains Voltaire’s corrections and comments on Frederick’s poetry. Given the absence of the original volumes, it is gratifying to see how much it has been possible to reconstruct. Of the two printed volumes from 1750, a copy with notes turned up in Belgium in 1979 thanks to the Voltaire Foundation’s longstanding contributor Jeroom Vercruysse. It turned out to be very literally a copy, that is, a painstaking piece of work in which Voltaire’s corrections, including those to his own comments, were reproduced by hand. While they have every characteristic of Voltaire’s style, there might have been doubts about the authenticity of the notes, had a German scholar, Hans Droysen, not published a couple of photographs in 1904 that exactly match the text and layout of the Belgium copy.

Œuvres du philosophe de Sans-Souci, vol.3 (1750), p.250, with corrections in the hands of Voltaire and Frederick II (reproduced by Hans Droysen, ‘Friedrichs des Großen Druckerei im Berliner Schlosse’, Hohenzollern Jahrbuch 8, 1904, p.84).

Excitingly, one photograph shows a page with writing by both Voltaire and Frederick, thanks to which it was possible to tell which of the hand-copied notes were by which man, since the copyist went to the extreme of doing a passable imitation of the handwriting of each. But what of the second volume? In this case, another German scholar, Reinhold Koser, had published, two years after Droysen, a large number of Voltaire’s notes, though frustratingly in a thematic order of his own devising, and with precious little context for some of the comments. Thanks to a considerable team effort and a lot of patience (and special thanks go to my colleague Martin Smith), it was possible to identify the location of most of Voltaire’s corrections and remarks (sometimes relying on discussion of rhymes to pinpoint particular verses). Only a few notes remain unattached to a specific place in Frederick’s text.

We learn a lot about the minutiae of what was and was not admissible in eighteenth-century versification, but Voltaire makes other stylistic comments and, as ever, he strives for wit and elegance. For example, he marks four instances of the word ‘plat’ within the space of two pages, numbers them, and next to the fourth, notes: ‘voila plus de plats icy que dans un bon souper’.

Frederick’s verse includes pieces that were written in an epistolary context addressed to Voltaire himself, and some of the latter’s notes provide glimpses into his own literary past. In the margin of a reference to his play Sémiramis, he writes ‘je ne hazarday cet ouvrage que pour feu madame la Dauphine qui m’avoit demandé une trajedie a machines.’ Who knew that the thunderclaps, opening tomb and ghost in that tragedy were of royal inspiration?

Voltaire eventually tired of this work (and who can blame him?) and for this and other reasons, attempted to leave Prussia. He was stopped and searched in Frankfurt and kept under arrest for some days by an envoy of the king, since the latter wanted to keep strict control over the copies of his book, and would not countenance Voltaire leaving the country with a copy. But that is a whole other story…

– Gillian Pink

The Journées Voltaire 2019

La vision et la réception de Voltaire et de ses séjours dans l’espace allemand au sein des réseaux de communication germanophones (XVIIIe- XIXe siècles).

The recent Journées Voltaire held on 13-14 June at Amiens and Paris focused on Voltaire’s reception in the German-speaking lands. Papers dealt with such questions as the diffusion of Voltaire’s work’s outre-Rhin, and the presence of Germany or German subjects in Voltaire’s works, as well as Voltaire’s influence on the major figures in German literature and philosophy: Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Nietzsche and others.

From left to right: Antony McKenna, Christiane Mervaud, Edouard Langille.

From left to right: Antony McKenna, Christiane Mervaud, Edouard Langille.

The conference’s final panel featured two papers of interest to the Voltaire Foundation’s edition of the Complete Works: Antony McKenna’s “La Lettre sur Locke à la cour princière de Rheinsberg”, and my own “L’Avis de l’éditeur précédant la Réponse aux vers précédents (c’est-à-dire les Vers aux Roi de Prusse) est-il de Voltaire?”

Enthusiasm can flag during the last panel of a conference, but such was not the case on 14 June. Under the presidency of Christiane Mervaud, Antony McKenna argued conclusively that as early as July 1736 a clandestine version of Lettre 13, “Sur Locke”, had made its way to Berlin where it was favourably received by Crown Prince Frederick. The young Frederick, it seems, now turned away from Wolff’s metaphysics and, following Voltaire’s interpretation of Locke, he increasingly called into doubt the immortality of the soul. These early days chronicle the beginning of Frederick the Great’s lifelong association with Voltaire, and they mark a turning point in the young Prince’s conversion to Enlightenment ideals. Interestingly, according to McKenna, the 1736 publication of the clandestine version of Lettre 13 was orchestrated by Voltaire’s enemies, who sought to discredit him by exposing his anti-Christian convictions to the wider public, especially in France. These findings will no doubt be considered as the VF prepares its forthcoming edition of the Lettres philosophiques.

Voltaire’s unsigned works have long occupied critics. Previously unattributed works, nevertheless, continue to be identified. In the second of the panel’s papers I wondered whether Voltaire wrote the Avis de l’éditeur preceding the poem entitled Réponse aux vers précédents, the latter an unbridled attack on Voltaire’s scandalous Vers au roi de Prusse. The Avis and Réponse were published anonymously in the last pages of the 1757 edition of the Lettre philosophique par M. de V*** (p. 276-285). The Avis’s ironic tone and word choices certainly appear to bear Voltaire’s stamp. Voltaire’s authorship seems even more plausible when one considers the Réponse’s menacing tone: “Comment ton grand savoir ne te dicte-t-il pas / Que les rois sont à craindre, ayant de fort longs bras?” (p. 283). Voltaire was hardly going to take such a threat lying down. Recalling his house arrest in Frankfurt in 1753 after he left Frederick’s court in Potsdam under a cloud, it seems likely that Voltaire arranged to publish the Réponse, preceded with the Avis, right after his own Vers au roi de Prusse, in order to discredit Frederick and expose the hostility his verse aroused at the Prussian court.

As Voltaire knew well, attack is the best form of defence.

– Edouard Langille

What else makes a critical edition?

Material constraints in publishing can sometimes have the beneficial effect of focusing attention anew on the importance of the intellectual content of the book. As has happened so many times over the years in bringing out the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, a volume has turned out to be too big to fit comfortably into a single binding, and so it has been split into A and B volumes. The Introduction to Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV will therefore be published in two parts: volume 11A contains the introduction proper, a prose study by Diego Venturino of the history, intricacies and import of this landmark historical work, with contributions from Nicholas Cronk and Jean-Alexandre Perras. And 11B will have… everything else. ‘But what else could be needed?’ a reader might be forgiven for asking. ‘Quite a lot’, the answer turns out to be.

The most straightforward content in 11B is probably the sequence of appendices presenting various texts that surround and shed light on the Siècle but are not part of the text itself: an unpublished manuscript; open letters published by Voltaire in periodicals; and finally forewords and prefaces from printings not chosen as the base text of our edition. These are presented as short critical editions in their own right.

By far the longest component, however, is the list of manuscripts and editions of Voltaire’s text. While a one-hundred-page section of painstaking bibliographical description might look dry and off-putting (see example above), it is a vital complement to both the introduction in volume 11A and the text itself, and fulfils several functions. It contains the detail of the history of the text: its prehistory, in manuscript state, and its print evolution. The latter tracks when Voltaire introduced changes into his work, whether by making corrections, adding new material, or rearranging it. The list shows which editions follow the latest changes made and, equally, which merely reproduce older versions of the text, thus revealing the relative significance of the different printings in the author’s lifetime. Various mysteries are explained: the edition bearing ‘Dresden’ on its title page (see example on the left) was actually printed in Leipzig, whereas the ones proclaiming Leipzig as their place of publication in fact were produced in Paris… Another, dated 1753, is in fact found to have appeared at the beginning of December 1752, all of which is elucidated and confirmed by Voltaire’s active and passive correspondence, as well as by some of the appendices. Each full description can be linked, via its siglum – a shorthand identification – to the textual variants given in the volumes of text, so that a reader, wanting to know more about the circumstances surrounding the different readings, can find the relevant information.

Finally, the list of editions serves as a reference tool for anyone in the world who comes across an eighteenth-century printing of the Siècle, since the detailed technical description allows one to identify copies, sometimes via small tell-tale signs, like a printing error, or a typographical ornament, which can serve to differentiate between two or more otherwise very similar editions. Connected to the list of manuscripts and editions is a dossier of illustrations, as well as a list of eighteenth-century translations of the text.

While most of the variant readings of Voltaire’s text are printed at the bottom of the page in the Œuvres complètes, a few are simply too long to fit. A digital edition would avoid this seemingly arbitrary distinction between variants based on length, but in a print edition, it makes most sense to give these longer variants their own space. Amongst volume 11B’s appendices are therefore an early list of marshals of France from the 1751 edition, before it was vastly expanded, and the early versions of chapter 24, which examines the period between the death of Louis XIV and the war of the Austrian Succession. This chapter has strong links to other works by Voltaire, namely the Précis du siècle de Louis XV, and an early version of part of the same, the Histoire de la guerre de 1741. Looking at how he modified and reused his material here is both illustrative of his working methods and also at the centre of a very real problem in editing Voltaire’s works: how to present material that moves between different titles over the course of the author’s lifetime.

Even after the author’s death, the text acquired accretions of various kinds. In the first posthumous edition of Voltaire’s works, one of his editors, Condorcet, added over a hundred footnotes. While obviously not part of the text, they do shed light on different aspects of it. For example, Condorcet wrote:

“When the first edition of the Siècle de Louis XIV became public, Fontenelle was still alive. People sought to set him against Mr de Voltaire. ‘How am I treated in this work?’ Fontenelle asked one of his friends. ‘Sir,’ he replied, ‘Mr de Voltaire begins by saying that you are the only man alive for whom he has set aside his resolve to speak only of the dead.’ ‘I do not want to know any more,’ Fontenelle declared; ‘whatever else he may have added, I must be content.’”

Or,

“Since in what follows, there will often be references to this monetary operation [inflation], and since Mr de Voltaire has not discussed its effects in any of his works, we may be forgiven for entering into a few details here…”

Or else,

“These [relief maps of Vauban’s Citadel of Lille] have since been moved to the Invalides.”

These are the main ingredients that make up this atypical volume of Voltaire’s complete works. A chance effect of page extent and the physical properties of bookbinding has resulted in a book that the scholarly community didn’t know it needed in quite the same way as a volume containing Voltaire’s text or an introductory essay; nevertheless, it would not be surprising if the tools and supplements that it contains, all part of what makes a critical edition, ultimately mean that quite a lot of readers end up calling it up from their libraries’ stacks.

– Gillian Pink

Voltaire as philosophical historian and historian of modernity

Whether from modern scholars or his contemporaries, most criticism of Voltaire’s history books boils down to one thing: Voltaire was not an academic historian. In his defence, he never claimed to be one, and his histories are all the more interesting for it. Voltaire’s histories have received renewed scholarly interest in recent years, and the Voltaire Foundation’s ‘Voltaire: historian of modernity’ research project began in 2015 with the aim of improving our understanding of Voltaire’s practice and influence as a contemporary historian of the early modern period and includes the set of critical editions of Voltaire’s ‘modern history’ texts. This year heralds the completion of the Siècle de Louis XIV,  Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, and Annales de l’Empire depuis Charlemagne multi-volume editions with the Précis du siècle de Louis XV following early next year.

The University library at Göttingen, painted by Johann Christian Eberlein (1800).

Detractors such as August Ludwig Schlözer in the Göttingen School of academic history accused Voltaire of being less concerned with historical facts and rigorous scholarship than he was with narrative and readability (Annales de l’Empire, Introduction, Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.44A, p.16). His authorial voice and his distinctive style were dominant, as was his constant insistence on philosophical readings of history, attempting to extract moral lessons from the past at every turn. Naturally, Voltaire’s defenders view precisely these characteristics as advantages of his approach.[1] Pierre Rousseau, editor of the Journal encyclopédique, praised the Annales de l’Empire in 1754 for its ‘philosophical spirit’ and the ‘character of the author’ (vol.44A, p.29).

Furthermore, Voltaire’s presentism and philosophical bent constituted a deliberate move away from traditional histories, most notably Bossuet’s overtly Christian Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681) and those emanating from academic schools of history such as Göttingen. (For a direct comparison between Voltaire and Bossuet’s styles, see our article ‘Essai sur les mœurs: What Voltaire did differently’.) Voltaire leaned towards what we would today term popular history, writing a series of accessible, enjoyable books that delivered a wealth of historical knowledge and philosophical reasoning in an appealing package.

Admittedly, he did so with a generous helping of editorialising, but it helps if we understand the context from which these books were born. In the famed querelle of the Ancients and the Moderns, Voltaire was firmly on the side of the Moderns. This influenced the shape and purpose of his historical writings: he was a historian of modernity who placed far more emphasis on recent years than on antiquity. Voltaire’s presentist approach is evident in his flagship Siècle de Louis XIV, which helped secure him the title of Royal Historiographer in 1745, and his universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs, which devotes far more pages to recent episodes than it does to the great events of ancient history, such as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. In the section of his 1744 Conseils à un journaliste entitled ‘Sur l’histoire’, Voltaire defends his presentism:

‘Foster above all in the young more taste for the history of recent times, which is for us a matter of necessity, rather than ancient history, which is merely a matter of curiosity.’

[‘Inspirez surtout aux jeunes gens plus de goût pour l’histoire des temps récents, qui est pour nous de nécessité, que pour l’ancienne, qui n’est que de curiosité.’ (vol.20A, p.482)]

As well as a historian of modernity, Voltaire was also a philosophical historian, meaning that his histories were part and parcel of his philosophical enterprise, namely the promotion of reason and tolerance. Voltaire accordingly invented this discipline of philosophical history for himself in La Philosophie de l’histoire (vol.59). These two disciplines were symbiotic: as a history of societies closer to his own, Voltaire believed that modern history had more instructive value from a philosophical standpoint, especially to young people. Even when writing about the distant past, as he does in the early chapters of the Essai and the Annales, Voltaire is always looking forward by asking the reader the question of ‘what can we, in the present, learn from all this?’

We have a series of short introductory articles for readers wishing to explore the Annales de l’Empire in more depth:

We have a similar series of introductory articles for the momentous work of universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations:

Samuel Bailey

 

[1] For a defence of Voltaire’s historical methodology, see Pierre Force, ‘Voltaire and the Necessity of Modern History’, Modern Intellectual History, 6:3 (2009), 457–84.

 

A born-digital edition of Voltaire’s Dialogue entre un brahmane et un jésuite

Just as the print edition of the Œuvres Complètes de Voltaire is fast approaching its completion, we at the Voltaire Foundation are starting work on two new, highly ambitious digital projects thanks to the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: a digital edition of Voltaire’s works based on the Œuvres complètes (Digital Voltaire), and a born-digital edition of the works of Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach (Digital d’Holbach).

With a view to gaining the necessary skills required to begin my work on Digital d’Holbach, in autumn 2018 I attended an intensive course on digital editions run by the Taylorian Institution Library. Taught by Emma Huber in collaboration with Frank Egerton and Johanneke Sytsema, the course takes students through all the phases of the digital edition workflow, from transcription to publication and dissemination. It is a goal-focused, hands-on course during which students are warmly encouraged to create a born-digital edition of a short text from the Taylorian’s collections.

Although short and apparently light in tone, the piece that I chose to edit – Voltaire’s Dialogue entre un brahmane et un jésuite sur la nécessité et l’enchaînement des choses – is a key text in the evolution of Voltaire’s philosophical views. As the title suggests, the Dialogue hinges on the question of determinism (or fatalisme, in eighteenth-century French parlance) and touches on such crucial notions as moral freedom, causation, and the problem of evil. It was first published anonymously in the Abeille du Parnasse of 5 February 1752, and it then went through several reprints during Voltaire’s lifetime, with very few variants.

My edition of the Dialogue is of course not meant to replace the one already available in OCV. Rather, it was conceived to meet the needs of the broader public – and more specifically those of students. A very short introduction, displayed on the right-hand side, provides essential information on the philosophical issues at stake while situating the Dialogue in relation to other key texts by Voltaire. An original translation into English by Kelsey Rubin-Detlev makes the text more widely accessible, allowing students working in fields other than modern languages (e.g. philosophy) to engage with Voltaire’s ideas. High-quality pictures of the 1756 edition, which provides the base text, aim to give non-specialists a taste of what it feels like to leaf through a (dusty) eighteenth-century book. Finally, a modernised version of the text is available next to the facsimile, and a rich corpus of annotations – displaying in both the French transcription and the English translation and featuring links to several other digital resources (the ARTFL Encyclopédie and Tout Voltaire, but also Wikipedia and BibleGateway!) – aims to render the reading experience as informative and rewarding as possible.

But there is more to this edition than first meets the eye! For example, by clicking on ‘Downloads’ in the menu bar, a fifth column will appear from which the user is invited to download pictures as well as TEI/XML files, which can then be used as models to generate further digital editions. Also, a drop-down menu in the transcription column allows users to choose between two different versions of the text in addition to the modernised version displayed by default: a diplomatic transcription of the 1756 edition and a diplomatic transcription of a 1768 edition, which comes with its own set of images that are also available for download under a Creative Commons Licence. By looking at these texts, users will get a sense of how radically French spelling evolved in the mid-eighteenth century.

Readers of this blog are most cordially invited to browse my edition. Any feedback on content or presentation (e.g. the way footnotes or variants are displayed) would be greatly appreciated as I work towards an edition of a considerably longer text by d’Holbach. But more on that in the coming months!

Ruggero Sciuto