Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Selfless Author: Voltaire's Apocrypha

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Selfless Author: Voltaire's Apocrypha

Article excerpt

La condition d'un homme de lettres ressemble a celle de l'ane du public, chacun le charge a sa volonte, et il faut que le pauvre animal porte tout.

Lancez la fleche sans montrer la main. (1)

--Voltaire

We are familiar with the idea that the growth of printing in the Renaissance brought about an information explosion: the abundance of books in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries created a situation in which, as Ann Blair has recently put it, there was just "too much to know." But we too easily forget that a second revolution in printing occurred in the eighteenth century, one that brought about the extraordinary multiplication of presses and the lowering of costs; this revolution, no less great than the first, generated a superabundance of books, as works were published and republished, in different formats for new and larger publics. In this Grub Street culture, books and information were cheap and cheapened, and Robert Darnton has described how eighteenth-century Paris was "an early information society," in which polemical anecdotes and portraits of individuals were written and rewritten in a process of blossoming information that he compares to the twenty-first-century blog. This revolution in the print world of the Enlightenment changed notions of authorship rapidly and radically; the marquis d'Argens seems to have had Voltaire in mind when he wrote:

   Ce qu'il y a de surprenant dans ce pays, c'est la fureur que l'on a
   de vouloir sans preuves attribuer certains livres, et certains
   ecrits, a des gens qui les desavouent. Tu te tromperais, si tu
   croyais qu'en France un auteur n'est responsable que de ses propres
   ouvrages: il l'est de tous ceux qu'il plait au public, et a ses
   ennemis, de lui attribuer. (2:210)

Voltaire complains vociferously about the spread of worthless books and pamphlets in his own century:

   Adieu les beaux arts dans le siecle oU nous sommes. Nous avons des
   vernisseurs de carrosses et pas un grand peintre, cent faiseurs de
   doubles croches, et pas un musicien, cent barbouilleurs de papier
   et pas un bon ecrivain. Les beaux jours de la France sont passes.
   (14 July 1773, D18474)

   Mes anges, mes pauvres anges, le bon temps est passe. Vous avez
   quarante journaux, et pas un bon ouvrage; la barbarie est venue a
   force d'esprit. Que Dieu ait pitie des Welches! (20 Mar. 1775,
   D19380)

Paradoxically, of course, this is precisely the publishing environment in which Voltaire thrived, and his prominence and celebrity as an author owe all to his mastery of the functioning of the print trade. The first publication of Candide in 1759, to take only the most flagrant example, is nothing less than a media event: the appearance of seventeen editions across Europe in the space of twelve months left the authorities powerless to intervene. Moreover, in addition to the enormous number of printings of Voltaire's own works, there exists a proliferation of other works attributed to Voltaire: fakes, forgeries, hoaxes, what I am here calling his apocrypha. (2) What are we to make of this vast body of writing? And has it anything to tell us about Voltaire and the remarkably innovative style of authorship that he fostered? (3)

Defining the Corpus of Voltaire's Apocrypha

What does the corpus of Voltaire's apocrypha look like? There are, to begin with, those works attributed to Voltaire and published after his death, like the pamphlet Voltaire aux Welches, facetie datee du Purgatoire (1780). The Lettres de Ninon de Lenclos were well-known, and in 1782 a publisher brought out a new edition with the enticing title Lettres de Ninon de Lenclos au marquis de Sevigne, avec sa vie: Nouvelle edition, augmentee d'une infinite de Notes & de Remarques philosophiques trouvees dans les papiers de M. de Voltaire, & enrichie du veritable portrait de Ninon. Although one letter recycles the well-known tale of Ninon de Lenclos leaving the young Voltaire a legacy to buy books, Voltaire has absolutely nothing to do with this work, and the notes, few in number, are descriptive rather than philosophical. …

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