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Posts Tagged ‘Voltaire’

21 NOVEMBER, 2014

Voltaire on How to Write Well and Stay True to Your Creative Vision

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“Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose.”

Centuries before Ezra Pound’s rules for how to write poetry and Edward Hirsch’s treatise on how to read it, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778), who invented social networking, set down some invaluable advice on how to write verse in a letter to his then-protégé — a gallant young man-about-town named Claude Adrien Helvétius. Two decades later, Helvétius would come to write the book De l’esprit; or, Essays on the Mind, the stark materialism of which would greatly put off Voltaire. But in his youth, he aspired to make a living as a poet. Having just published a book of poems on happiness and love, titled Epistles, which received rather unfavorable critical reception, Helvétius reached out to Voltaire for feedback and assurance, which his mentor readily supplied.

The letter, found in the 1919 volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection from His Correspondence (public library | IndieBound), is a masterwork of advice not only on how to write verse, or how to write well in general, but also, as Ursula K. Le Guin admonished three centuries later, on the perils of writing for commercial gain and to please an audience rather than out of true creative vision.

Cirey, February 25, 1739
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My dear friend — the friend of Truth and the Muses — your “Epistle” is full of bold reasoning in advance of your age, and still more in advance of those craven writers who rhyme for the book-sellers and restrict themselves within the compass of a royal censor, who is either jealous of them, or more cowardly than they are themselves.

What are they but miserable birds, with their wings close clipped, who, longing to soar, are for ever falling back to earth, breaking their legs! You have a fearless genius, and your work sparkles with imagination. I much prefer your generous faults to the mediocre prettinesses with which we are cloyed. If you will allow me to tell you where I think you can improve yourself in your art, I should say: Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose: only employ true similes: and be sure always to use exactly the right word.

Shall I give you an infallible little rule for verse? Here it is. When a thought is just and noble, something still remains to be done with it: see if the way you have expressed it in verse would be effective in prose: and if your verse, without the swing of the rhyme, seems to you to have a word too many — if there is the least defect in the construction — if a conjunction is forgotten — if, in brief, the right word is not used, or not used in the right place, you must then conclude that the jewel of your thought is not well set. Be quite sure that lines which have any one of these faults will never be learnt by heart, and never re-read: and the only good verses are those which one re-reads and remembers, in spite of oneself. There are many of this kind in your “Epistle” — lines which no one else in this generation can write at your age such as were written fifty years ago.

Do not be afraid, then, to bring your talents to a Parnassus; they will undoubtedly redound to your credit because you never neglect your duties; for them: they are themselves very pleasant duties. Surely, those your position demand of you must be very uncongenial to such a nature as yours. They are as much routine as looking after a house, or the housebook of one’s steward. Why should you be deprived of liberty of thought because you happen to be a farmer-general? Atticus was a farmer-general, the old Romans were farmers-general, and they thought — as Romans. Go ahead, Atticus.

But Helvétius was ultimately unwilling, or perhaps unable, to take his mentor’s advice and soon abandoned poetry for prose and profit. Twenty years later, On the Mind was burned by the public hangman, alongside Voltaire’s poem “On Natural Law.” Although Voltaire privately loathed and publicly denounced Helvétius’s book, he — a vocal opponent of censorship and proponent of the freedom of speech — immediately leapt to its defense. In doing so, he lived up to the famous paraphrasing of his philosophy that his official biographer and the editor of his letters, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, would later memorably write — a sentiment so evocative of Voltaire’s spirit that it is often misattributed to the philosopher himself:

I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

Complement with the story of how Voltaire fell in love with a remarkable female mathematician and his spirited case for the rewards of reading.

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14 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Philosopher and the Prodigy: How Voltaire Fell in Love with a Remarkable Female Mathematician

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“That lady whom I look upon as a great man… She understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.”

“I found, in 1733, a young woman who thought as I did, and who decided to spend several years in the country, cultivating her mind.” So begins the description by Voltaire in his memoirs of a relationship that would define the most productive years of his life. The most famous man in Europe had met his match: the twenty-seven-year-old mathematical prodigy Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet.

The pairing was dynamic and productive — together, they would achieve some of the most important Enlightenment writing on science, physics, and philosophy. But as Nancy Mitford explains in her fantastic 1957 biography of the intellectual power couple, Voltaire in Love (public library), they were devoted not just as intellectuals, but as lovers as well as friends. It was an extraordinary bond that lasted for nearly fifteen years.

In his youth, Voltaire enjoyed the education of a minor aristocrat; Émilie could credit her education solely to her father, who recognized her capacity for learning at an early age. She studied Latin, English, Italian, and Greek, translated the Aeneid, read Homer and Cicero, and, most importantly, excelled at math.

Madame du Châtelet at her Desk by Maurice Quentin de La Tour.

She was less successful at the feminine arts, and at the height of her fame would be chastised for having poor teeth, unkempt hair, and messy clothes. Mitford writes:

Elegance, for women, demands undivided attention; Émilie was an intellectual, she had not endless hours to waste with hairdressers and dressmakers.

Émilie and her talents inspired both awe and jealousy among the nobility; she had removed the most charming and witty man in Paris from their dinner tables. While Voltaire remained a bachelor, Émilie had married at nineteen the dull and abiding Marquis du Châtelet, the perfect arrangement for one to conduct a necessary love affair. Mitford explains:

Love, in France, is treated with formality; friends and relations are left in no doubt as to its beginning and its end. Concealment, necessitating confidants and secret meeting places, is only resorted to when there is a jealous husband or wife. The Marquis de Châtelet always behaved perfectly.

Before they met, both Voltaire and Émilie had a parade of lovers: He enjoyed the attentions, though not the intellect, of wealthy aristocrats who would feed and house him, while she entered into passionate affairs and even once drank poison to discourage a lover from leaving. After her third pregnancy at twenty-seven, she renounced the bearing of children and began the serious study of mathematics.

Their meeting was simple: The pair was introduced by another set of aristocratic lovers over a tavern dinner of chicken fricassee. Voltaire had just returned from England and was thrilled to discuss the latest scientific discoveries of the age. He wrote in a letter:

That lady whom I look upon as a great man… She understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.

Portrait of Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de la Tour c. 1736, three years into his relationship with the Marquise du Châtelet. (Wikimedia commons)

She invited him to her house in the country. He moved in. (The Marquis was often away on military campaigns.) With the essential assistance of Émilie, Voltaire would publish Elémens de la philosophie de Newton in 1738, a simplified guide to the famous scientist, which popularized his most advanced theories, including the gravity of planets, the proof of atoms, the refraction of light, and the uses of telescopes. Voltaire sincerely recognized the intellectual debt he owed his lover. The frontispiece of the work shows the philosopher touched by the divine light light of Newton, reflected down to earth by a heavenly muse, Madame du Châtelet.

Frontispiece for Voltaire’s Elémens de la philosophie de Newton (1738). Newton and the Marquise as muse are shown floating above the author.

Émilie herself sought a more profound goal: the translation into French of Newton’s Mathematica Principia, in which the elements of calculus were first laid out. She not only translated, but also added her own commentary on Newton’s calculations. Her mathematical skills awed her social set. Émilie was a hustler of sorts at the gaming tables in Paris, though she rarely had the luck to win. Mitford writes:

Voltaire said of her that the people she gambled with had no idea she was so learned, though sometimes they were astonished by the speed and accuracy with which she added up the score. He himself once saw her divide nine figures by nine others in her head.

Voltaire and Émilie lived in an intellectual fairyland, punctuated by the occasional need for Voltaire to flee to the country due to an insult or an affront. But as with all French affairs, there was no doubt to the beginning of the love between Voltaire and Émilie, and there was no doubt to its end. In 1744, the Marquis de Saint-Lambert, a poet in the Academie Française and a Byronic figure at court, paid a visit to their country house. Ten years younger than the forty-three-year-old Émilie, Saint-Lambert began a cold seduction of the Marquise, who quickly fell in love. Voltaire, who had been recently ill, was enraged and depressed.

I am here in a beautiful palace… with all of my historical books and my references and with Mme du Châtelet; even so I am one of the most unhappy thinking creatures upon earth.

Portrait of Émilie du Châtelet, by Nicolas de Largillière c. 1740. (Louvre)

But in the manner of French love affairs, Voltaire decided that it was better to remain friends with the muse of his life. Instead of challenging the young Saint-Lambert to a duel, he let Émilie go:

No, no, my child, I was in the wrong. You are still in the happy age when one can love and be loved. Make the most of it. An old, ill man like myself can no longer hope for these pleasures.

With Saint-Lambert, Émilie soon found herself pregnant and terrified at the age of forty-four. She threw her attentions on translating Newton from Latin into French. She worked from eight in the morning until coffee at three in the afternoon, then she continued four until ten, and after a few hours with Voltaire, until five in the morning. With her work finished, she died in childbirth surrounded by her husband, her new lover, and Voltaire. (“It is you who has killed me!” he shouted at Saint-Lambert, learning of her death.) Voltaire would help publish her translation of Newton ten years after her death, which remains the standard version of the text in France today.

Issac Newton’s Principia, translated into French by the Marquise du Châtelet, published in 1759, ten years after her death.

Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet were among the most inspirational couplings of the Enlightenment, and became a model for brilliant and difficult men and women who would come together in a blaze of all-consuming affection between like minds, including Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, and Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz. Savor their singular romance in the altogether wonderful Voltaire in Love.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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21 NOVEMBER, 2013

Voltaire on the Perils of Censorship, the Freedom of the Press, and the Rewards of Reading

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“The man of taste will read only what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.”

Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) is one of the most revered and quotable writers in literary history, credited with pioneering “social networking” with his Republic of Letters — the remarkable epistolary mesh of correspondence between him and some of his era’s greatest intellectuals on both sides of the English Channel and beyond. But more than a mere participant in literary culture, Voltaire was also its vocal proponent, unflinching custodian, and tireless crusader for its highest ideals. In a poignant and pointed 1733 letter to a high-ranking government commissioner, found in the volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection From His Correspondence (public library; public domain) by biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre, Voltaire bemoans the extreme censorship of the press in 18th-century France. Making a brilliant addition to famous authors’ revolt against censorship and eloquently extolling the rewards of reading, he writes:

As you have it in your power, sir, to do some service to letters, I implore you not to clip the wings of our writers so closely, nor to turn into barn-door fowls those who, allowed a start, might become eagles; reasonable liberty permits the mind to soar — slavery makes it creep.

Had there been a literary censorship in Rome, we should have had to-day neither Horace, Juvenal, nor the philosophical works of Cicero. If Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Locke had not been free, England would have had neither poets nor philosophers; there is something positively Turkish in proscribing printing; and hampering it is proscription. Be content with severely repressing diffamatory libels, for they are crimes: but so long as those infamous calottes are boldly published, and so many other unworthy and despicable productions, at least allow Bayle to circulate in France, and do not put him, who has been so great an honour to his country, among its contraband.

You say that the magistrates who regulate the literary custom-house complain that there are too many books. That is just the same thing as if the provost of merchants complained there were too many provisions in Paris. People buy what they choose. A great library is like the City of Paris, in which there are about eight hundred thousand persons: you do not live with the whole crowd: you choose a certain society, and change it. So with books: you choose a few friends out of the many. There will be seven or eight thousand controversial books, and fifteen or sixteen thousand novels, which you will not read: a heap of pamphlets, which you will throw into the fire after you have read them. The man of taste will read only what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.

He then goes on to make an economic case against censorship, arguing that even the most meritless of literature should be allowed to exist for its economic and social value, whatever our moral judgment of it may be — an argument that could apply perfectly, depending on one’s disposition, to the Buzzfeeds and Huffington Posts of our time:

Men’s thoughts have become an important article of commerce. The Dutch publishers make a million [francs] a year, because Frenchmen have brains. A feeble novel is, I know, among books what a fool, always striving after wit, is in the world. We laugh at him and tolerate him. Such a novel brings the means of life to the author who wrote it, the publisher who sells it, to the moulder, the printer, the paper-maker, the binder, the carrier — and finally to the bad wine-shop where they all take their money. Further, the book amuses for an hour or two a few women who like novelty in literature as in everything. Thus, despicable though it may be, it will have produced two important things — profit and pleasure.

A year after Voltaire penned this missive, his own Letters on the English were publicly burned and he was compelled to flee the capital. But, as Hall writes, “the system, of course, entirely defeated its own ends. The hangman’s fire blazed into notoriety the very works it sought to destroy: while the secret printing of the scurrilous and the indecent was ubiquitous.”

Four decades later, writing to Rousseau in 1775 to discuss the perils of plagiarism, Voltaire revisits the subject of literature’s battles with his singular gift for separating the petty from the profound:

What matter to humankind that a few drones steal the honey of a few bees? Literary men make a great fuss of their petty quarrels: the rest of the world ignores them, or laughs at them.

They are, perhaps, the least serious of all the ills attendant on human life. The thorns inseparable from literature and a modest degree of fame are flowers in comparison with the other evils which from all time have flooded the world. Neither Cicero, Varron, Lucretius, Virgil, or Horace had any part in the proscriptions of Marius, Scylla, that profligate Antony, or that fool Lepidus; while as for that cowardly tyrants, Octavius Caesar — servilely entitled Augustus — he only became an assassin when he was deprived of the society of men of letters.

[…]

If anyone has a right to complain of letters, I am that person, for in all times and in all places they have led to my being persecuted: still, we must needs love them in spite of the way they are abused — as we cling to society, though the wicked spoil its pleasantness. . .

More of Voltaire’s timeless wisdom and unwavering convictions can be found in Letters on the English, which is also available as a free download.

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