April 15, 2004 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on April 15, 2004.
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It is an election year, again, here in the US, and in an election year it is a useful thing to sit down and re-read Voltaire. His descriptions, and ironies, seem more up-to-date and topical than anything which I myself read, anyway, in the current US media:
"Monsieur le Baron était un des plus puissans Seigneurs
de la Westphalie, car son Château avait une porte & des
-- in a US election year it does get pretty tiring, hearing how so very rich, or so very poor, or so very noble or not so, the various candidates all are or claim to be or accuse each other of being... And when they and their "political advisors" get to plumping up personal claims and achievements, and then the political hoo-rahs begin praising the infinite goodness and wisdom of the US, and of its forever-benevolent policies, well,
"Le Précepteur Pangloss était l'oracle de la maison...
Pangloss enseignait la Métaphisic - théologo - cosmolo -
nigologie. Il prouvait admirablement qu'il n'y a point
d'effet sans cause, & que dans ce meilleur des Mondes
possibles, le Château de Monseigneur le Baron était le
plus beau des Châteaux, & Madame la meilleure des
All of Voltaire's writings now may be read, in their original French, and that in the elegant 18th c. editions which initially presented it to the world, online at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France's Gallica digital library:
(liste des auteurs => XVIIIe => "V")
-- and there is a digital library exhibit there, too, showing the fruits of a new France / Russia / pan-European effort --
La bibliothèque de Voltaire
"On the occasion of the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the city of St. Petersburg, in 2003, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the National Library of Russia together have developed this site to recognize, and to present to the international scientific community, the Voltaire Library held at the National Library of Russia.
"This cooperation is in accord with the agreement of June 20 2002, between the Ministère des Affaires Etrangères of the French Republic and the National Library of Russia, as an initial step in the establishment of a European Center for the Enlightenment, at St. Petersburg." [tr. JK]
This last Website offers four files, each containing texts and other materials in both French and Russian:
"The cultural heritage of Europe is well-represented in the collections of the museums and libraries of Russia, among these the French collections held at St. Petersburg.
"The Voltaire Library of the National Library of Russia at St. Petersburg is unique. The importance of this monument of the European culture of the 18th century is difficult to overestimate. It contains nearly 7,000 books most of which contain marginalia written by Voltaire, manuscripts, notebooks, draft copies, works of Voltaire published during his lifetime and containing remarks written in his own hand. By virtue of its size and scientific importance, both historical and cultural, the Voltaire Library completes the principal center for the study of the heritage of this celebrated French writer, at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
"The National Library of Russia began the project to create its Voltaire Library to provide for both conservation and study, and for both researchers and the general public. It will be a project composed of several long-term phases: from the initial financial establishment -- the creation of conditions for conservation and study at the Voltaire Library -- through to the organization of a Center for the Scientific and Cultural Study of Voltaire.
"The Voltaire Center will become a museum project familiarizing the public with the unique monuments of 18th century culture. Under development:
And the story of how Voltaire's books got to Russia makes for fascinating "provenance" reading: from "Fonds Voltaire" --
"The Voltaire Library was acquired by the Empress Catherine II, a short time after the death of the French philosopher on May 20, 1778.
"As soon as she received confirmation of the sad news, from her literary and political agent Baron Grimm, Catherine wrote to him on July 21: 'When I come to town this autumn, I will assemble the letters which the great man wrote to me, and I will send them to you. I have a large number of them. If it is possible, arrange for the purchase of his library and of all the rest of his papers, including my letters. As for myself, I gladly will pay his heirs handsomely -- who, I imagine, do not know at all the value of these things... I will create a salon in which these books will find a home.'
"Grimm told all Europe of the intentions of the Empress, and the numerous responses in the press to this news resulted not just in the aquisition of the library and correspondance of the philosopher but in the construction at St. Petersburg of a 'monument' or 'mausoleum' to Voltaire -- the creation of a 'temple' in his honor, and a 'museum' dedicated to his memory.
"Even in their wildest dreams, however, the enlightened Europeans of the era could not have foreseen the true intentions of Catherine II: to build in the park of Tsarskoïe Selo an exact replica of the château de Ferney where Voltaire had spent his final twenty years, the most peaceful of his life. It was in the midst of such décor that the Russian empress intended to install the treasures of Voltaire's Library.
"'Let me have the design of the facade of the chateau of Ferney and, if possible, the interior plans showing the distribution of the rooms', she subsequently wrote to Grimm, 'for the park of Tsarskoïe Selo exists for the chateau of Voltaire to come and find its place there. So, too, I must know which rooms face north, and which south, and which to the rising and the setting sun; it also is essential to know whether one may see the Lake of Geneva from the windows of the chateau, and on which side are to be found the Jura mountains'...
"In 1779, on the orders of Catherine II, detailed plans of the château de Ferney and its parks were prepared, and a precise wooden model of the buildings was assembled. J-L Wagnière, Voltaire's secretary, was charged with procuring the paintings and upholsteries used for the furnishings of the chateau. The 'Ferney russe' of Tsarskoïe Selo would become a reproach to the French absolutism which had treated Voltaire with such disdain.
"The project for the construction in Russia of a replica Ferney, however, never took place. One might speculate that Catherine lost interest when she found that her own letters to Voltaire, held in the library of the philosophe, had been obtained from there by the publisher Charles-Joseph Panckoucke with the help of Beaumarchais.
"Researchers advance other explanations as well: the revolt of Pugachev which had emptied the treasury of the State and not permitted the undertaking of the project, or equally the intervening evolution in relations between Russia and France -- Catherine II having reconciled with Louis XVI and the Emperor of Austria in order to gain allies in the conquest of the Crimea.
"Whatever the causes, of all the projects assembled for the perpetuation of the memory of Voltaire, the only one actually realized was the acquisition of his library. At the conclusion of brief negotiations with Mme. Denis, Voltaire's niece, Grimm and Ivan Chuvalov swung the deal: the official legatee of Voltaire made a gift of the collections of her illustrious uncle to the Empress of Russia, and received from her in return the sum of 30,000 rubles (35,396 livres, 4 sols, 6 deniers), an honorary title, a jewel box decorated with her portrait, some diamonds and some furs.
"The library and the manuscripts of Voltaire quickly were packed into twelve imposing crates which were transferred to the château des Délices, near Geneva, a property of François Tronchin the old friend of Voltaire, where they remained until April 1779, the Spring opening of navigation on the Baltic then making possible their transport to St. Petersburg. The library reached Frankfurt-am-Main on May 16, then Lübeck where it was loaded aboard a vessel sent expressly for the purpose.
"Nevertheless, it wasn't until August 1779 that the books and manuscripts of Voltaire arrived in the capital of the Russian Empire, escorted by Wagniere, secretary and librarian to the philosopher, who installed himself in the Winter Palace and, the following year, handed over the keys of the cabinets to Alexandre Loujkov, private librarian to the Empress.
"By its very composition, the library of Voltaire offers us a model for the collection of a savant / encyclopédiste of the 18th century. If the works of philosophy and of law, which Voltaire used successfully in his battle with the Catholic Church, figure in large number, the philosopher accorded no less attention to the history of France and to universal history.
"One also finds, among his books, the works of Isaac Newton, who Voltaire popularized in France, and the works of the celebrated Dutch doctor Hermannus Boerhaave, the best periodicals of his time, accounts of voyages, atlases. The Voltaire Library is particularly rich in poetic and dramatic works -- as well as in editions of his own works, abundantly annotated by him. A good number of these undertakings, for example the Dictionnaire Philosophique, are present in several editions, each one bearing the corrections and clarifications of its author -- thus offering us today the possibility of access to the "laboratory" of the philosopher, enabling us to trace the evolution of his ideas and to see his initial intentions become enriched by later additions which corroborate the original." (tr. JK)
As I said here initially, I myself can think of no better remedy for the headaches, heartaches, and stomach aches of a US presidential year than a thorough re-reading of Voltaire.
It's all part of what John Saul, who has read too much of Voltaire perhaps, refers to as "the dotage of the Age of Reason": in a book which Saul entitled Voltaire's Bastards (1992), a thoughtful and eloquent study of, inter alia, why modern politics has erected Reason as a surrogate for Religion. "Must I be re-crucified for every generation?", wails G.B. Shaw's Saint Joan: the reply to her being, it seems, "Well yes, you must..."
And it is a wonderful thing to be able to read Voltaire online in the original, courtesy of the BnF's Gallica: just now I am reading through the 1759 edition of Candide --
Titre(s) : Candide, ou l'Optimisme [Document électronique]
Description matérielle : 299 p.
Note(s) : Reproduction : Num. BNF de l'éd. de [S.l.] : [s.n.], 1759. in-12
-- easily found, read, and marvelled over, online at the BnF --
Various new tricks, from the BnF and from Adobe, make it possible to view not only the fulltext of the original edition, in fine reproduction, but also very convenient pagination, a fullscreen version for just reading through the work, downloading for free, and even document delivery for a fee.
The Lettres Anglaises was written near the beginning of a long and productive literary life, and Candide, ou l'Optimisme was written near its end -- and, in between these two, there is much else that is very worth reading -- particularly the voluminous Correspondance, which has much to teach the Soundbyte Era and The Age of Internet about the roles of simplicity and felicity of phrasing, and of thoughtful prose, in communication.
In a brief introduction to the Lettres Anglaises which praises Voltaire's open-mindedness, his ability to focus upon the important as vs. the frivolous although enraging issues of life, and his talent for seeing, "that which is positive in religions which he himself does not share", Fernand Massé observes,
"...c'est un signe fâcheux pour la santé intellectuelle d'une société qu'il faille périodiquement défendre la mémoire de Voltaire et combattre le répertoire non renouvelé de ses calomniateurs.
"Il est vrai que lui-même a montré maintes fois que lentement, qu'elle n'est jamais un donné, mais toujours une conquête sans cesse menacée par toutes les formes de la superstition, de l'ignorance, de la bêtise aux inépuisables aspects."
-- Voltaire lettres anglaises (Holland : Jean-Jacques Pauvert éd., 1964) p. 6-7.
One recipe for much that ails modern society, then, in this US election year, might be a reading by any or all of us of the entire corpus of Voltaire's writing. If, as John Saul and others have suggested, the Modern Era not only is descended from Voltaire's but represents the ultimate corruption of "The Enlightenment" -- if, at least, the values of Rationality developed by Voltaire and his fellow Lumières now are in need of a thorough dusting-off and re-examination, following a century of disastrous global warfare, and during a century in which the killing continues albeit "unofficially" now -- and if modern information technology has taken a soundbyte turn leading, for many of us, to less communication rather than to more -- then Voltaire has much to teach us all, again.
At least, this time, a reader need only "point and click": at the immense and accessible Voltaire digital library, presented now so ably online by the BnF and the National Library of Russia -- in editions giving any book-lover or history buff the authentic flavor of Voltaire's own very promising and in fact optimistic 18th c. era. No longer necessary to trek to "the library", then, or to be a member of an educated and wealthy elite, to gain access to these texts: for increasing numbers of us, anyway...
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