Scott McLemee
Voltaire Almighty
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Newsday, 18 December 2005

VOLTAIRE ALMIGHTY: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom, by Roger Pearson. Bloomsbury, 447 pp.
 
 
 
By the 1750s, the explosion of new learning in Europe was making it increasingly difficult for anyone to keep up. Voltaire did his part to help out with the "Encyclopedia" -- that grand Enlightenment effort to create a searchable database of contemporary knowledge. Among the entries he tackled was "Men of Letters." The resulting essay was not just an entry in a reference book. It offered an account of something that was vanishing from the world even as he sketched it.

"One of the great advantages of our century," he wrote, "is the number of learned men who can proceed from the thorns of mathematics to the flowers of poetry and who can judge equally well a book of metaphysics and a work of drama." But that range of talents didn't come easily. "The profession of the historian," he wrote, "is a hundred times vaster than it was for the ancients." And the natural sciences were growing just as fast. If anyone should know, it was Voltaire. He had published a somewhat daring history of the reign of Louis XIV (praising the king in ways that implied criticisms of his successor), while also writing popular surveys of the new work in theoretical physics done by Isaac Newton.

"Universal knowledge is no longer within the grasp of one man," he wrote, "but true men of letters place themselves in a position to proceed into these different fields even if they cannot cultivate all of them."

It was, of course, Voltaire's self-portrait. For some reason, Roger Pearson does not quote it in his racy and action-packed new biography. But then, the figure he sketches is somehow less an 18th century man of letters than something much more contemporary -- a celebrity on an almost global scale. Voltaire was capable of running profitable businesses while also engaging in human-rights campaigns, juggling mistresses and maintaining high levels of media saturation as distinguished author and witty dinner guest.

Not to mention keeping a sometimes hectic travel schedule -- of necessity. By his 30s, Voltaire had seen the inside of the Bastille twice, and had been beaten up by the hired thugs of an aristocrat who took some of his quips badly. The Catholic Church regarded him as a public menace. And while Voltaire's writings won the esteem of the young Prussian aristocrat later known as Frederick the Great, there were disadvantages to being friends with a temperamental emperor. The impression left by Voltaire Almighty is that the great man lived into his 80s largely thanks to knowing just when to grab his luggage.

Pearson's earlier book on Voltaire, The Fables of Reason, was an analysis of what the author called his "contes philosophiques" -- a series of short fictional works that explored his thinking about tolerance and enlightenment through satirical treatments of hypocrisy, fanaticism and self-delusion. "Candide" is the most famous of them, and one of the few works by Voltaire still readily available. (You can locate a dozen editions of it in any chain bookshop, while his plays, poetry and essays are almost impossible to find.)

In his study of the short fiction, Pearson looked at the historical context of Voltaire's ideas. So it's surprising how little of that context shows up in Voltaire Almighty. It portrays him as perhaps the most successful writer of the 18th century -- someone whose work generated such excitement and controversy that he had to keep manuscripts locked up, lest people steal and publish them without permission. It was a time when gossip was a minor art form, and Pearson does note the existence of a minor industry in vituperative books intended to take the great man down a notch. (One was called Voltairomania.)

But the biographer seldom ventures any analysis of how Voltaire's ideas and literary art developed. He is perhaps even more reticent in speculating about his emotional life. When an author has a difficult relationship with his father, launches himself into literary fame with a play about Oedipus (the first of several works in which there is a parricide) and then revisits the theme of authority and rebellion countless times in the course of his public life -- well, it may be that a certain degree of psychobiography is actually in order.

There is also something strangely attenuated about how Pearson treats the other Enlightenment figures who cross Voltaire's path. The most telling case is that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who started out as an admirer of the older man. By the early 1760s, however, Rousseau was denouncing Voltaire as a monster who had conspired to ruin his life.

"Unversed in the finer points of Rousseau's prickly sensibility," Pearson writes, "Voltaire quite simply thought the man had lost his mind." Well, yes. So did quite a few others who knew Rousseau in this period, including friends who knew that "prickly sensibility" quite well.

There was more to the falling-out between Voltaire and Rousseau than the latter's mental instability. Two very different conceptions of the world had clashed. Voltaire's mind had the drier, sharper edge -- ready to cut away the rotten parts of the old society through wit and political activism -- while Rousseau felt that progress had already cost too much. Voltaire Almighty treats such conflicts as if keeping them at a safe distance. I can't help wishing it moved closer to the heart.