- Voltaire’s Tormented Soul: A Psychobiographic Inquiry
Curious to spy on Voltaire as he lies on the psychobiographer’s couch? Our natural voyeurism means that we are dying to know exactly how much damage his parents inflicted on the great philosophe. In this work, eminent clinical psychologist Alexander J. Nemeth sates our curiosity by transferring a lifetime of expertise to the retrospective couch examination of the most complex of all possible characters: François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire. While the book’s title reveals Nemeth’s overall reading of this ‘case’, and literary scholars will instantly recognize many of the phenomena studied, a certain frisson may nonetheless be gained from the application of modern clinical terms to Voltaire’s familiar character quirks. Henceforth, one may refer to Voltaire’s textual energy and mental agility as free-floating ideation. His manifestations of gastrointestinal hypersensitivity, whether inborn or acquired, are a common chronic psychophysiological affliction known as ‘chronic illness behaviour’, which may indeed be the result of the channelling of unresolved trauma and tension into bodily symptoms. Of those traumas and tensions, there are myriad source examples, from an authoritarian father to the tragedy of losing Maman early to a debilitating disease; from childhood performance in Maman’s salon to the subsequent compelling need for public recognition; from preferred status of ‘bastard’ child to adoption of a new name and persona: Voltaire’s eighty-four-year-long life is rife with examples of a narcissistic personality make-up. Yet Voltaire embodies a genuine humanistic spirit that helps ‘mollify deplorable instances of egocentric motivation’ (p. 118). While few scholars would class Voltaire’s relationship with Émilie as a failure, Nemeth asserts that Voltaire lacks the emotional equipment for managing such an ongoing, close relationship, suggesting that his narcissistic personality incapacitates him for such a union. Without ever presuming to defend Voltaire’s virility or lack of it, one marvels at how Nemeth can pronounce so definitively and retrospectively on Voltaire’s alleged problems of intimate involvement with women. Chapter 13’s studies of conscience, ethics, morality, truth, and hypocrisy represent intriguing examinations of Voltaire juggling both self-interest and consideration of others. When old age arrives, Nemeth diagnoses a personality change, with Voltaire’s niece playing the role of a fantasized stand-in for his beloved Maman. The final verdict suggests a coherent disunity in ‘the poet-philosophe’s singularly dissonant personality’ (p. 314). Incidentally, that term ‘poet-philosophe’ in itself suggests a very particular reading of Voltaire. Among other aspects, Nemeth’s work certainly confirms that there are as many Voltaires as there are biographers. While the terminology used may be invaluable for Voltaire scholars to adopt, the risk remains that, despite a broad base of primary, secondary, and biographical references, certain assertions may be all too easily refuted by wider reference to the philosophe’s labyrinthine corpus. It is a pity that much recent Voltaire scholarship, including biographical works by René Pomeau and Roger Pearson and various critical editions, appears to remain largely untapped. Nonetheless, this book constitutes a rich and novel contribution to Voltaire studies that will intrigue admirers and sceptics alike. And yes, of course it all stems from his mother.