Voltaire’s Tormented Soul: A Psychobiographic Inquiry (review)
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Reviewed by
Alexander J. Nemeth. Voltaire’s Tormented Soul: A Psychobiographic Inquiry. Bethlehem: Lehigh UP, 2008. 332 pp. + Bibliography. ISBN 978-0-934-22392-0, $80.00.

Every biographer of Voltaire, and his many admirers, would like to know why he acted as he did. His quixotic behavior throughout his life certainly invites psychological speculation. He was hailed as France’s greatest playwright and the defender of the wronged; yet he acted like a childish provocateur and was a shameless seeker after royal favors. He wrote famous epic poems adulatory of Henri IV, and of the generals at the battle of Fontenoy. But he also enraged the King’s censors with his scatological cantos mocking Jeanne d’Arc. He publicly ridiculed many of France’s most sacred institutions, including the court and the Church, and yet fought for decades to be admitted to the Académie française, and swore in public to the sincerity of his Catholic beliefs.

Alexander J. Nemeth, a retired clinical, forensic, and neuropsychological professional, seeks to reconcile these apparent contradictions, this “internal inconsistency” of Voltaire’s personality. Using the “methods and tools” of clinical psychology, he plans to give readers a psychoanalytic study of the eighteenth-century Frenchman’s life and character (17). Historians are not by definition averse to such efforts. Peter Gay, trained as a psychoanalyst in addition to being a renowned historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European culture, noted that every historian is an amateur psychologist (6). Nemeth has simply reversed the process: he aspires to be the psychologist turned amateur historian.

Like René Pomeau, France’s reigning Voltaire scholar, Nemeth is puzzled that, given the multiplicity of sources, questions still remain. Pomeau, in his two-volume biography, Voltaire en son temps, accepts that one might [End Page 849] speculate about psychological causes: “Quelle blessure intime a marqué François-Marie Arouet?” He mentions Voltaire’s mother’s early death, his probable illegitimacy. Perhaps there was a “traumatic experience” while away at school. In the end, however, Pomeau concedes the victory to the silent Voltaire: “Nous l’ignorons, et toute conjecture est aventurée, tant Voltaire s’est appliqué à garder le silence sur son enfance et sa jeunesse” (1: 3).

In contrast, Nemeth takes this silence as a challenge, and describes ways to read what he believes has not been said, to reconcile all that appears to contradict and obfuscate. For it is his conclusion that “in Voltaire’s inner world there is indeed coherence” (18). However, this coherence “became blurred by the ego’s defensive strategy for keeping disturbing thoughts, memories, and feelings out of conscious awareness” (18). In particular, Nemeth explains, “emotional injuries from childhood” prompted “subconscious counter measures adopted for warding off the overwhelming anxiety” those injuries caused. These “adaptive-defensive measures” are the “dynamic motivational forces responsible for much of the hitherto unexplained behavioral and conceptual paradoxes” (24). Meanwhile, the public Voltaire “managed to get through life by falling back on some well-developed and most useful assets: power of imagination, skill in manipulating his human environment” (246). The evidence for this analysis comes from what Nemeth calls “depth psychology,” a “clinical interview” with Voltaire’s writings and behavior, and a kind of “psychological detective work” (19–20, 326, 74). Reasoning back in time, he uses Voltaire’s adult behavior to reveal childhood psychical injuries. These Nemeth identifies as “threads”—recurring aspects of Voltaire’s behavior, similar choices made throughout his life even though destructive of his apparent goals (245–46, 326–27).

Nemeth is correct: a historian with a psychological bent can find much to analyze in Voltaire’s virulent attacks on rivals, his apparent disregard for those who advanced and protected his career, and his seemingly hypocritical betrayals and accommodations. Thus, a “psychobiographic inquiry” could contribute much to our understanding of this extraordinary Frenchman. Nemeth’s study, however, falls short in three important ways. First, he seems unaware of the possible models for the psychoanalysis of the dead. Although he mentions in an appendix Erik Erikson, who also wrote psychological biographies, there is no acknowledgment of Freud’s own experiments with the genre. More seriously, Nemeth says nothing of Peter Gay...