|Page 18||Book Reviews Non-Fiction||October 2006|
Voltaire Almighty: a life in pursuit of
By Alidë Kohlhaas
There are surely few individuals in Canada who have not heard the name, 'Voltaire'. Strangely enough though, not many will be able to tell you who this person really was, although some will connect him with the 18th Century Age of 'Enlightenment'. In this country, many will also connect him to the fateful words he wrote that seem to have forever enshrined the image of Canada in the mind of Europeans as being a place of ice and snow, and nothing else. Actually, Voltaire made several comments about our "home and native land", each somewhat different, but with the same condescending result on the subject of Canada. He really knew nothing about this country, but because he opposed the war we now call the 'Seven Years War', he made reference to Canada because he felt France should leave the North American territories to the British. Why? Because he felt the cost to France to maintain them outweighed their usefulness.
Roger Pearson, professor of French at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Queen's College, has attempted to give us an idea of who Voltaire was in his book, 'Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom'. His biography of the French thinker, dramatist and poet is exhaustive, and reveals much about the character of the man born as François-Marie Arouet, was called Zozo in his childhood by his family, and who one day decided to just call himself Voltaire. There are conflicting stories as to the origin of this name, just as there is uncertainty as to who fathered Voltaire, and of the actual date of his birth. Voltaire claims as his birthday February 20, 1694. Strangely enough, though, for that period in France and for being the son of a Jansenist Catholic, it appears as unusual that his baptism did not take place until nine months later, in November 1694.
Officially, his father was François Arouet, a lawyer, public administrator and businessman. Voltaire, however, would in his later life sometimes claim as his father the chevalier Guérin de Rochebrune (or Roquebrune), a writer of popular songs. It seems that his mother, Marie-Marguerite (née Daumard) had met the chevalier at the salon of one of Paris's more famous courtesan's, Ninon de Lenclos. She was a proponent of free love and freethinking, and Rochebrune frequented her salons. She may also have introduced the young Zozo to sex at the behest of his godfather. Ninon at the time of this incident was apparently 84, Zozo 10.
With regard to Voltaire's choice of sire, Pearson tells us that "[t]his was certainly his preferred paternal origin, and he defended his mother' s honor by claiming that it lay in her preference for 'a of wit and intelligence'— 'a musketeer, officer, and author'—over 'Monsieur his father who, in the matter of genius, was a very mediocre man'."
There is lots of juicy material in this 447-pages-long biography of one of the most prolific writers of any age, yet just what Voltaire wrote the book's readers will have to search out for themselves because Pearson provides no excerpts of the great man's plays, novels, his poetry, or of his philosophic writings. And as it happens, these days there is little available to read. If one is lucky one might find his novel, Candide, but little else. In my case I also have a worthy translation of his writings on the Callas Affair.
It is in Candide that one of Voltaire's several negative comments about Canada appears: "You know that these two nations are at war [France and England] about a few acres of snow somewhere around Canada, and that they are spending on this beautiful war more than all Canada is worth."
While Pearson has a fascinating approach in Voltaire Almighty to his subject, I found myself putting the biography aside again and again. It took me quite a while to get into it. In part it may have been Pearson's writing style that got to me. He has a tendency to sprinkle sentences throughout the book that one can call fragments as they lacked finite verbs. Maybe there is something deeper lacking.
What the biography fails to offer is some commentary on Voltaire's standing in the literary and philosophic world in comparison to such thinkers as Hume, Locke, and Rousseau. It would have made him appear less like a gadfly.
Pearson's book, however, shows us that Voltaire is a man of contradictions. He believes in God, but not in religion. He believes in personal freedom, but loves aristocracy, and is in no way a social reformer. He is neither a republican nor a democrat, yet is also opposed to the tight controls both church and state have over individuals in France. He takes up the fight for the unfortunate, most famously that of the family of the unjustly executed Huguenot, Callas, who was claimed to have killed his son because he may have had Catholic leanings. There was, of course, no proof of that, but only gossip from neighbors and an employee. The Callas Affair ended with a posthumous pardon and monetary recompense to his family thanks to Voltaire. Just how Voltaire obtained this just decision in a less than just France is one of the better chapters in the biography. There were others for whom he sought justice and succeeded, though always after their often gruesome deaths.
Some might call Voltaire a roué because of his lifestyle in his later life, which he spent at Ferney, an estate near Geneva with three frontiers close by just in case he might have to run for it. His most famous mistress was Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise de Châtelete with whom he spent much time at her estate in Lorraine. She was a scientist of considerable talent, a married woman whose husband was frequently away at war and seemed to be tolerant of the affair. She died from complications in childbirth of yet another man's child. Such were the complications of the life of France's aristocracy. At Ferney Voltaire's companion—and for some years—his mistress in his late life was his niece, Marie-Louise Denis, daughter of his sister, Marguerite-Catherine Mignot. As Voltaire doddered into old age, she would take other lovers, but stayed with her uncle to take care of his affairs.
Other contradictions in his life were his desire for fame and the love of mixing with the famous, while at the same time he cared little for his personal looks and attire. These were, to put it mildly, eccentric. He had an uncanny ability to amass money, which is uncommon among artists. Most of it he obtained by lending money to foreign royalty, who paid him annuities, and by owning property. He greatly admired the freedom of thought that he found in England, but had little good to say about Shakespeare. He left England after some kind of shady money dealings and settled on the French coast for a while under an assumed name. He was still on the run from French authorities.
His fame made him the philosophic confidant of the future Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia. He never met Catherine, but he met Frederick, who seemed to think that he could own the philosopher. This made it it necessary for Voltaire to escape from Berlin. Eventually the two would patch up their differences, but only through correspondence, never again in person. Voltaire had learned an important lesson in Berlin.
Voltaire spent two terms in the famous Bastille because of his opinions and writings, and he eventually aroused the ire of his sovereign, who banned him for life from Paris. He would return, though, but only as a very old man, just months before his death. By then he was a hero of the people, who lined up to see him enter and leave the Comédie-Française, which had given a performance of his play, Alzire. He died on May 30, 1778, having lived to see three different kings rule France, none of whom he pleased.
We often misquote Voltaire with his supposed, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." What he actually did say to Frederick of Prussia is this: "I am a tolerant man, and I consider it a very good thing if people think differently from me."
He wasn't always that tolerant, though, as he and the younger Jean Jacques Rousseau —one of the French Enlightenment's most eloquent writers—were greatly at odds; one can even say they became bitter enemies. The irony is that the two men, who died in the same year, eventually found their final resting place in Paris in the Panthéon, in graves facing each other.