- Recueil des facéties parisiennes, by Voltaire, vol. 51A in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire by Michel Delon
After decades of the dichotomy of politically disengaged structuralism and compulsory Marxism, university researchers are now seeking ways to be objective and scientific keepers of our culture at the same time as they guide readers to make sense of their own present through an increased familiarity with the authors we associate with the foundation of Western democracies. This scholarly volume by numerous authors and editors, complete with an extensive scholarly apparatus, including a preface by Michel Delon, encourages us to seek relevance in the year 1760, an instant in time concerning French intellectual history. We are encouraged to retrace and contextualize Voltaire’s satirical caricature, with the idea that it may help us interpret current practices: “Alors que les démocraties peinent encore aujourd’hui à travers le monde à définir une neutralité de l’espace public et ne se mettent pas d’accord sur le droit au blasphème et les limites de la caricature individuelle, les variations polémiques de Voltaire dans les années 1759 et 1760 sont autant de documents historiques à interroger” (xxv). The publication Charlie Hebdo and its team remain unnamed, but, for people who follow the news even distantly, it must come to mind, although the modern journal does not use caricature in the same way as Voltaire, which should become obvious as one reads this volume. Delon is not alone in this effort to reflect on satirical caricature, and out of two sponsored panels, the French section of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (Pittsburgh, 2016) proposed a more blunt juxtaposition of the assassinations at Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters and Voltaire’s thought as a launching pad for a rather complex reflection—let us note that despite acknowledged interest, the call for contributions to this panel did not meet with an immediate rush of proposals from participants. [End Page 771]
It is rare to find a collection of introductions less partial to the works of the author whose scientific edition they painstakingly produced in an impressive collective effort. Each specialist restitutes dignity (if warranted) to the injured parties and weighs Voltaire’s altruistic and ideological motives against pettier ones, such as his self-interest and his personal or authorial narcissisms. The latter are detected in his jealous intermittent attacks over fifteen years against Le Franc de Pompignan’s highly successful play at the time (Didon) as it met with great public success and was officially included in the permanent repertoire of the Comédie Française (David Williams, 208–12). Jessica Goodman exposes Voltaire’s dubious positioning at the occasion of Palissot’s comedy (Les Philosophes, 1760), ridiculing philosophers except for Montesquieu and Voltaire, whom she praised in the published preface that she edits (Goodman, 223–30). Goodman reports on Voltaire’s obvious sensitivity to the compliment paid by Palissot (226) and Grimm’s comment that Voltaire should not have sent friendly letters to Palissot nor acted as his executioner in his critical “notes” (230). Diana Guiragossian-Carr also mentions Grimm’s comment when questioning what motivated Voltaire to publish all of these pamphlets in a bound volume (345).
While reading the letters exchanged between Palissot and Voltaire (edited by Kelsey Rubin-Detlev), it is possible to interpret the friendly overtures of Voltaire as a strategic move to lead the anti-philosophical author to retract some of his attacks—his misattribution of quotes, for instance—as too damaging for a project dear to Voltaire, namely D’Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopedia (Stewart, 118). Furthermore, Pompignan’s academic speech attacking the philosophes, claiming that they are impious and seditious towards the government, broke the general convention of remaining silent on such topics in the gatherings of the Academy: it was considered out of place if not indecent as a reception piece to that institution (Stewart, 20n7). Stewart perceives that Voltaire is rightly alarmed by the...