The Fables of Reason: A Study of Voltaire's "Contes Philosophiques"

The Fables of Reason: A Study of Voltaire's "Contes Philosophiques"

The Fables of Reason: A Study of Voltaire's "Contes Philosophiques"

The Fables of Reason: A Study of Voltaire's "Contes Philosophiques"

Synopsis

This is the first comprehensive study in English of Voltaire's contes philosophiques--the philosophical tales for which he is best remembered and which include his masterpiece Candide. Pearson situates each story in its historical and intellectual context and offers new readings in light of modern critical thinking. He rejects the traditional view that Voltaire's contes were the private expression of his philosophical perplexity, and argues that it is narrative that is Voltaire's essential mode of thought. His book is a witty, lucid, and scholarly guide to the "fables of reason" through which Voltaire's skepticism undermined the contemporary religious and philosophical explanations of human experience.

Excerpt

J'ai lu Candide vingt fois, je I'ai traduit en anglais et je l'ai encore relu de temps à autre.

(Flaubert in a letter to Louis de Cormenin, 7 June 1844)

This book arises out of my recent translation of Candide and Other Stories for the World's Classics series published by Oxford University Press. Having spent many months shadowing Voltaire word for word I came to see his contes in a quite different light from that in which I had previously encountered them. In particular the experience of his story-telling as an evolving process rather than as a series of readymade classics bred a strong sense in me that what Voltaire's contes principally do is not so much to convey a number of alleged intellectual and moral truths in palatable form as to foster a spirit of irreverence and to instil in the reader a habit of mind with which he or she may embark upon the independent pursuit of wisdom.

Translation itself, of course, is a much debated activity. In more self-important moments I felt it to be the supreme form of literary interpretation: each act of linguistic transposition having to be undertaken in as full an awareness as possible of all the conceivable functions of the unit to be rendered, not to mention the effects of one's proposed rendition, with the final choice of the best of all possible words being in itself literary commentary of the most authoritative kind. But the implicitness of such commentary left me with a Panglossian desire to pronounce further.

I have therefore undertaken to present as succinctly as possible an account of all Voltaire's twenty-six contes. On the eve of the tercentenary of his birth it is surprising to note that no such comprehensive study exists. Dorothy Madeleine McGhee Voltairian Narrative Devices as Considered in the Author's 'Contes philosophiques, published in 1933, covers the whole corpus (with the exception of Pot-pourri) but from the limited point of view indicated in her title. Jacques Van den Heuvel's Voltaire dans ses contes. De 'Micromégas' à 'L'Ingénu (1967) considers some of the major stories in their biographical and historical context, as well as commenting on a number of important narrative techniques: but several stories are neglected, not only the minor ones.

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