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Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom

by Roger Pearson

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Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom
Roger Pearson is a professor of French at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Queen's College. His emphasis is on the literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. He has translated and edited Candide and Other Stories and is the author of The Fable of Reason: A Study of Voltaire's Contes Philosophiques. He is also the author of Stendhal's Violin and Unfolding Mallarmé.

Voltaire Almighty is filled with facts yet it feels empty. Pearson writes that Voltaire was a great conversationalist, but there is precious little to convey that. He admits that this biography only "supplemented" the classic Voltaire et son temps by René Pomeau. In his "A Note on Sources and References" Pearson relegates this work to what can only be a second level of biography. The note provides the titles of many biographies which Pearson views as "classic" or "best intellectual biography" or "authoritative accounts" or "epoch-making study." If the author does not have faith in his work, how can we have faith or, indeed, lend credence to the positions he takes?
I want to know how Arouet/Voltaire got from schoolboy to the writer of "Oedipe"? What was his intellectual development? If he was a "martyr to his physiological condition" tell us more about it. There are hints about his reaction to certain foods and, near the end, the information that he enjoyed an enema once each week on Wednesday. If he was so sickly, how did he write an estimated fifteen million words (15,000,000!!)? We learn many facts, but they too often sit in isolation without the needed connective tissue required to breathe life into the man - and the book.

And, there are little annoyances. Money figures heavily in the story of Voltaire's life. How much was the livre worth? What was the average income in France at the time?

One clear highlight is the discussion of the intellectual - religious conflict between Voltaire and Pascal. The passion is as clearly elucidated as the facts. Voltaire's critique was "the first bomb thrown against the ancien regime." This discussion of Pascal's Penseés contrasted with Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques and captures the essence of Voltaire's argument against religion and absolute monarchy, fights he was to carry beyond the grave.
It was this disputation which led Voltaire to Émilie du Chatelet, the love of his life. She was married to someone else; they lived in her home; and, part of the time, her husband was present. They were together 16 years and he spoke of her as "my wife." Emilie was sexy, unpredictable, and Voltaire's intellectual equal. Her translation of Newton's Principia mathematica remains the standard French edition.

Voltaire's statement of his devotion is remarkable, a singular statement of love and near intellectual equality.

What she has done for me . . . would make me her slave for ever if
the singular lights of her mind and her superiority over all other
women in this domain had not already bound me in chains . . . .
[She is a woman] in whose company I learn new things every day,
and to whom I owe everything.

Voltaire's enemies continually sought to do him in while they made money by publishing his work illegally. He loved "jousting and dueling with his pen," and he especially liked having his work in print. In fact, Voltaire often showed his work to a printer specifically saying he was not allowed to print, but knowing full well the printer would go ahead and make an illegal copy. Voltaire knew early on the value of "deniability."
Voltaire's twin targets were religious intolerance and absolutist government. He wrote about the Catholic massacre of Protestants on Saint Bartholomew's Day 1572 while still in school, and continued to write about it for the remainder of his long life. It was an act which he saw as a "terrible demonstration of the violence and inhumanity to which the pacific teachings of Jesus can lead."

Buried barely with Church approbation (Pearson does cover quite adequately the negotiations and subterfuges which Voltaire and his friends employed and which allowed him to be buried in hallowed ground, rather than a potter's grave.), a dozen years later Voltaire was seen as one of the founders of the Revolution. His skeleton was returned to Paris in glory for burial in the soon-to-be Pantheon. An inscription on the catafalque read in part: "Poet, philosopher historian, he made the human mind to soar, and prepared her to be free." Ironically, the monument on which his casket rested was made with rubble from the Bastille, a prison in which Voltaire had spent time in his youth and was never far from returning to.

There is good wheat in this biography, but it is surrounded by too much chaff.
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