Sunday, January 23, 2022

Voltaire: A Life III

Voltaire stayed with Émilie du Châtelet for several more years, but kept Marie Louise Denis as a backup. The latter was about eighteen years younger than Voltaire and still had other options for male companions. She and Voltaire had a sexual relationship, though it was hardly a strong romance, and not much changed until 1749, when Émilie died. Mme Denis fit Voltaire's lifestyle to some extent, since she enjoyed participating in amateur productions of his plays, but I don't think that she was an ideal partner for him because, besides the fact that she was his niece, which forced them to pretend that they were not sexually involved, she was not an aristocrat. There were some intellectual female aristocrats whom Voltaire may have preferred, but if he made an attempt to seduce them he failed. The opinion that I've formed is that, while Voltaire was quite intelligent, he was essentially a social climber who sought the same social status as the aristocrats, while allowing himself the opportunity to pursue his interest in the theater. Émilie began an affair in about 1747 with Jean-François de Saint-Lambert, a marquis whom she met through aristocratic circles, and she later became pregnant by him; she died from an infection in 1749, a few days after the birth. The baby died later. Coincidentally, the same Saint-Lambert began an affair with Sophie d'Houdetot in 1752; Rousseau was smitten with her in 1757 and she became the subject of his novel, Julie; or The New Heloise, a bestseller, though their relationship didn't last long.

Leading up to this, Voltaire was getting tired of court life in France. He and Émilie had three residences: the Château de Cirey, an apartment in Versailles and an apartment in Paris. He had avoided visiting Frederick in Potsdam, the capital of Prussia, because the French court frowned upon it, but, after Émilie died, he lived there for a time. However, when he was brought to trial for making an illegal investment, Frederick grew irritated with him, and he left Prussia on bad terms in 1753. He was initially uncertain about what to do next, since he was no longer welcome in Paris, and in 1755 he finally settled on moving to a property in Geneva just outside of town, which he renamed Les Délices, and he made extensive improvements to it. He also obtained a country house near Lausanne. As he had done elsewhere, he ingratiated himself with those in power, particularly Théodore Tronchin, the doctor who later became one of Rousseau's enemies. 

Up to this point in his life, Voltaire, who was now in his early sixties, had not been much of an Enlightenment figure, like Denis Diderot or Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, the mathematician, who together had started the Encyclopédie in Paris. Some of the Parisian philosophes were outright atheists, whereas Voltaire was a deist. They solicited written contributions from him, and he befriended d'Alembert, who visited him in Geneva and wrote an essay about the town. However, this essay scandalized d'Alembert because of its religious references, and it was opposed by both the Catholic censors in Paris and the Calvinists in Geneva. Consequently, d'Alembert withdrew from the Encyclopédie, and Diderot took charge. Voltaire also became controversial in Geneva due to his interest in plays, because Calvinists thought that they led to vices. At the time, Geneva was a city-state, and Voltaire elected to buy properties just across the border in France, where he could do as he pleased. Beginning in 1758, he went on another spending spree and purchased two châteaus, Ferney and Tournay, along with surrounding lands, while retaining Les Délices. This time, besides the usual improvements, Voltaire made investments in farming and built up an enormous staff. According to Davidson, Voltaire then acquired, for the first time, a genuine interest in "the common man," which put him in closer alignment with Diderot, d'Alembert and Rousseau.

I am gradually piecing together Voltaire's character from the information provided. He seems to have had an extremely good memory, a talent for languages and an extroverted personality. Intellectually, though he produced many witty one-liners, they were often sophisticated put-downs and did not demonstrate much intellectual depth. He may have been similar to some extroverted people I've known who were impressive in social situations but at heart were a little superficial. There is still some mystery regarding how he remained so wealthy after 1728. Some of his income came from loans to aristocrats and some of it came from foreign investments. He was living during the heyday of exploitative French colonialism, which may have helped. Davidson notes that Voltaire was anti-Semitic, and this makes me think that his enmity may have derived from years of competition with Jewish moneylenders. There is evidence that some of his transactions were not aboveboard, and this inclines me to think that his wealth was not all acquired honestly. In 1759 he published Candide, which became a runaway bestseller and was probably the only truly profitable work of his literary career. I may read that after I finish this book. I am nearing the end and will have one more post before then.

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