Sunday, January 30, 2022

Voltaire: A Life IV

When Voltaire's reputation in Geneva declined among the patricians, he moved out permanently from Les Délices. Ferney became his primary residence for the remainder of his life. He continued to write and stage plays in the theaters that he built there, and he gradually became a tourist attraction. In 1760 he took in Marie-Françoise Corneille, an impoverished girl whom he thought was a granddaughter of the playwright. He later learned that she was a more distant relative. He adopted her, educated her, married her off and provided her with a dowry with the returns from a popular book that he wrote on Corneille. He was able to feed and entertain hundreds of visitors at a time and still work for several hours per day on new plays. 

A major change occurred in Voltaire's life when he decided to become an advocate of criminal justice reform. This was prompted by the publicity surrounding the torture and execution in 1762 of Jean Calas, a Toulouse cloth merchant. Calas, a Protestant, was charged with a crime which he did not commit, and for which there was no evidence of his guilt. At the time, the Seven Years' War with England was underway, and French Catholics viewed Protestants with suspicion. Apparently, one of Calas's sons was despondent, in part because of discrimination against Protestants, and committed suicide. Since the church frowned upon suicides, the family initially covered it up. Although Calas had done nothing wrong, a judge found him guilty of murder, and his execution left the family destitute. Voltaire managed to get the verdict reversed, and this was only the first of several cases with which he became involved. There really wasn't much change made to the criminal justice system until after the French Revolution, but these actions made Voltaire, symbolically at least, more of an Enlightenment figure than he would have been otherwise. In fact, most of his life had been devoted to writing uncontroversial plays and historical works, and he generally behaved obsequiously whenever he had cause to believe that he had upset someone in authority.

Another act of generosity to the public occurred in the early 1770's, just after Geneva had undergone a period of political turmoil. Voltaire decided to assist Genevan refugees by setting up a watch manufacturing industry in Ferney and was remarkably successful. He contacted potential watch buyers across Europe and as far off as Constantinople in order to create a market. I think that his skills as an impresario, along with his skills as a money manager, made this possible. Simply because of Voltaire's presence in Ferney, it gradually became a sizeable town.

Although Voltaire was generally happy with Mme Denis as his partner in Ferney, she obviously was not ideal for him. In 1760 he wrote:

Mme Denis is a fat pig, Sir, like most of your Parisiennes; they get up at midday; the day passes, they do not know how; they have no time to write, and when they want to write, they can find neither paper, pen, nor ink, so then they have to come and ask me, but now the desire to write disappears. For every ten women, nine are like this. Forgive, Sir, Mme Denis for her extreme laziness....

It appears to me that he was not at all a romantic figure and simply recognized, in a purely practical sense, that he needed female companionship.

As the 1770's progressed, Voltaire gradually became more ill, though this had little effect on his work output. He made his final trip to Paris in 1778 in order to see a performance of his last play and died there on May 30. Though he was initially buried in Champagne for technical reasons, his body was moved to the Panthéon after the revolution.

My overall assessment of Voltaire is that he was a multitalented person. However, he was not to any extent what one might call a revolutionary or even a thinker. The works that made him popular were most often satirical, and satire is not the best tool for distilling serious ideas. In contemporary terms, he could reasonably be compared to Carl Reiner or Norman Lear, since television has essentially replaced the theater as the dominant public art form, though, as a class-conscious person, Voltaire would wince at the comparison. He liked theatrical hustle and bustle, and the main difference would be that there weren't mass audiences in those days. What impress me the most are his work ethic and financial savvy. I have no desire to read much of his oeuvre, because I'm sure that I would find his plays dated. They were even dated while he was still alive, and he was incensed by the fact that some of Shakespeare's plays became popular in Paris. Although Voltaire was loosely connected with the buildup to the French Revolution, most of his views came from the generation before the philosophes. Certainly, he was outraged by the abuses of the monarchy and the Catholic Church, but he was in fact quite well adapted to them and would have done well even if a revolution hadn't been imminent.

In this vein, it is of some value to compare Voltaire to Rousseau, Diderot and d'Alembert. The three were each quite unlike Voltaire. Rousseau had the disadvantages of abandonment by his father at the age of ten, little formal education and an inability to navigate complex social situations. Being a philosophe was never his ambition, and he fell into that role mainly because it became the only option available to him after he failed to succeed in the opera and the theater. In fact, his accidental entry into the 1750 Dijon essay contest determined the remainder of his career. He wrote an unnecessarily harsh letter to Voltaire in 1760 which alienated one of the few people who might have assisted him. Nevertheless, I think, from reading Confessions, that he was an extremely talented writer. But because of his psychological makeup and background, he was unable to capitalize on the options that presented themselves to him – quite the opposite of Voltaire. Diderot was primarily a man of his times, and he was excited by the dissemination of new ideas, which is what he is best known for, though I don't think that he had many interesting ideas of his own. I am less familiar with d'Alembert, who was a talented mathematician, and he seems to have fallen somewhere between Diderot and Voltaire in his ability to navigate complex social situations. 

While there is much to criticize about Rousseau, as a personal matter I still prefer him to Voltaire and Diderot, because he was a fellow introvert, and we both had unpropitious backgrounds. Neither Voltaire nor Diderot left recollections of their life experiences, and I consider Confessions, though an imperfect account of Rousseau's life, one of the finest works of the eighteenth century. I had considered reading Candide, but, because I don't think that I would like it at all, I'm going to move on to something else.

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