May 2nd 2013

Voltaire: I Groan In Silence

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”


Voltaire looks up from his quill pen but does not rise as I enter his study for our interview. He is working alone, his bald head covered by a skull cap. A shoulder-length wig is draped on a wooden stand nearby. The first thing that strikes me is what a shrunken little guy he is, at odds with the large, lasting impression he made as a rapscallion in his heyday. Second, he didn’t dress up for this fantasy visit. He is wearing a housecoat, probably naked underneath. Voltaire’s view of our modern world turns out to be strangely similar to his commentaries on the 18th century. The world turns, it would seem, but does not evolve. Much of his writing fits the human predicament of today – needless war, abuse of power, fraudulent democracies, religious fanaticism. As he looks me over, his eyes twinkle. He is more comfortable than I am. With some exuberance, he extends a bony hand. I don’t know whether to shake it or kiss it. I shake it.

Herewith, a transcript of our interview.

INTERVIEWER: Monsieur Voltaire, I presume?

VOLTAIRE: Yes indeed, and a very good day to you, mon ami. It’s wonderful to meet the press and sound off again. I never thought I’d have another chance.

I: May we start with a scene-setter? Where have you been? We have missed you. We have neededyou. Did the devil take you?

V: No, I have not been in hell, as my enemies hoped. I have been in heaven and I am happier than ever. I didn’t quite believe heaven existed, but it turns out to be the perfect place for the likes of me. For one thing, we have no royal policemen checking on us every five minutes. Where did they end up, I wonder … ?

I: Let’s talk ‘big picture’ for a moment. How about life on our planet – surely you agree that it has changed for the better since you passed to the other side in 1778 after eighty years of troublemaking? You like what you see?

V: Oh no, I am disgusted! (He bangs his tiny fist on the writing table.) My lifetime of campaigning for the right to say what you think has proven to be a waste of time. Speaking out is still viewed as an inconvenience in too many of your countries, east, west and middle east. Entire peoples are afraid to speak their minds. The level of political discourse is juvenile. Superstition reigns. I have come back to sound the alarm – to try once more to wake up the world to the most sinister dangers. Political correctness. Fanaticism. Injustice.

I: Are you finished?

V: No, there is more — control of the populace by governments. Authoritarian rule is on the rise. Whatever happened to democracy? I always thought it would work at least in small countries. Your presidents want to hoard their power, just as our leaders did in my day. The people are scarcely consulted. Liberty is more fragile than ever. I warned about such things 200 years ago. Was no one listening?

I: Your cautionary writings about warfare seem to have zero impact. Are we guilty of repeating history?

V: Yes, you are. War is a plague that never stops. We had ghastly wars in my day, and the rules have not changed. Murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. How is it that we cross the sea to slaughter our brothers just because they dress in red smocks and wear turbans? How is it that we recruit citizen soldiers by making a noise with two little sticks on a cowhide membrane? And after battles have been won, come the celebrations! The sky is alight with rockets and the air is rent with the sound of bells, cannon and Te Deum on the cathedral organ. I groan in silence over murders that caused this public rejoicing.

To want your country to be great is to wish your neighbors ill.

I: Please, give the armies credit for their honest patriotism if nothing else.

V: I don’t think so. To be a good patriot is very often to be the enemy of the rest of mankind. A patriot wants his country to prosper through trade and be powerful through armament. Clearly, one country cannot win without another losing, and it cannot conquer without making some people unhappy.(Wagging his finger.) So that is the human condition: to want your country to be great is to wish your neighbors ill.

I: Perhaps we have been too slow to learn our lessons?

V: Indeed. What can we say to a man who tells you that he would rather obey his God than man, and that therefore he is sure to go to heaven for butchering you? Fanatics are sometimes guided by rascals who put the dagger into their hands. These rascals are like the old man of lore who made imbeciles taste the joys of paradise and then promised them an eternity of pleasure on the condition that they assassinate all those he would name.

I: Yes, but that was then.

V: Not quite. Look around you. The identical situation prevails today. I once wrote a fable about a giant from another planet visiting earth and observing humans at war. The traveler, shuddering at what he saw, begged to know the cause of the horrible quarrels among such a puny race. The subject of the dispute was a pitiful mole-hill called Palestine, no larger than his heel. Need I provide specifics of your more modern struggles?

I: Don’t bother. I get your point. The human race is violent by nature.

V: Indeed. It requires twenty years for man to rise from the vegetative state in his mother’s womb, through childhood and adolescence until maturity of reason begins to appear. It has taken us centuries to learn a little about his blood, bone and sinew. (Shaking his head, eyes closed.) It takes an instant to kill him.

I: Would you agree that what we need is a sense of generosity toward each other to replace our urge to kill?

V: Yes, and this brings me to my most important theme – tolerance. What is tolerance? I once wrote an entire treatise on it. We are mere human beings — formed of weakness, inconsistencies, fickleness and error: let us pardon each others’ follies. That was and still is the first law of enlightened nature. It is clear that only a monster persecutes another because he is not of the same opinion.

I: Yet intolerance springs eternal in our species.

V: I invite the political powers of the world to say that they truly believe that kindness toward peoples would produce the same revolts that cruelty does. Of course the contrary is true. If men revolt when mistreated, it follows that they will not revolt if treated well.

An earthquake can swallow us all alike; that will be the ultimate justice 

I: At least justice will be served. Those who transgressed will eventually pay. Or will they?

V: Those reverend fathers of the Inquisition and its derivatives will be crushed just like other people. As we saw in Lisbon in 1755, an earthquake can swallow us all alike. That, my friend, will be the ultimate justice.

I. Most people only remember you for your harmless little tale Candide.

V. Candide was nothing great – I didn’t even like it — but it was far from harmless. It was full of malice, in fact. And you will excuse me if I say I am proud of my legacy. I left behind a mountain of poetry, prose, polemics, history, drama and private correspondence. I was the most popular playwright in Europe for many decades after my death. And some industrious souls at Oxford are still pulling my entire oeuvre together in a set of two hundred volumes. I wrote compulsively, day and night, about everything that mattered to me — and this was before email, Twitter and Facebook. Think of the ink I spilled!

I. We also remember you for saying you might disagree with us but would defend to the death our right to say it.

V. Wrong again. That was not I. It was a line – and a brilliant line it was – in a book published in London more than a hundred years ago called The Friends of Voltaire. I wish I had said it!

I: So you specialized in provocations. Monarchies trembled. What is your sweetest memory of impaling your targets?

V: Oh I had much pleasure in needling the grandees of my day – and I was glad to see that England, our big rival at that time, allowed and even encouraged this practice all those years ago. One of my most powerful little books was something I called Letters from the English Nation — a virtual hymn to England, singing the praises of the British and knowing how my words would be resented back across the Channel in France. They hated it when I wrote that “in England, people think, and literature is more honored than in France.”

I: Surely you don’t claim that England was a well-ordered society in the 18th century!

V: No, and being well-ordered is not the point. English genius has been like an unruly tree planted by nature, throwing a thousand branches in all directions and growing irregularly but vigorously. Genius dies if you seek to force its nature and trim it.

I: So did your little ruse work out?

V: Oh yes. They loved that book in old England. Not so much in France. (He lets out a high-pitched giggle.) They burned it in Paris.

I: And you went to your grave hating France?

V: No, no. I loved France – I still do — but I could not resist poking fun at the pompous people. One of my Candide characters says that when traveling in France he noted that half the inhabitants were insane, some were too cunning for their own good, others were rather good-natured but plain stupid. In all the provinces the principal occupation was fucking; the second, speaking ill of each other; and the third, just babbling nonsense. I wonder how much of this still applies today. Quite a bit, I would say. Plus ça change, as a French writer once said, well after my time.

I: Weren’t you always in trouble with your enemies, especially the critics?

V: Yes but I got even. I let rip against those who didn’t like me. I created a typical example of the genre, a Frenchman, naturally. He probably recognized himself. I called my character a fat swine, a wretched fellow who earned his living by trying to destroy all plays and all books; a reptile, a hack, a newspaper scribbler. You still have critics like that hanging around.

Journalists working among men of letters are like bats among the birds

I: Do you mean to say that newspapers writers serve no useful purpose?

V: The journalist produces the lowest kind of literature and is scorned even by the people. Yet these scribblers call themselves authors! The only authors are those who have succeeded in a genuine art, be it epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, history or philosophy, and who teach or delight mankind. The others, the journalists working among men of letters, are like bats among the birds.

I: Didn’t you sum up your thinking from A to Z in your Philosophical Dictionary?

V: Yes, that format gave me the opportunity to write about everything under the sun, and it’s in that book that I find I can make connections with your modern times. We thought our period was the beginning of an enlightened era, free of superstition. We were full of ourselves, and rightly so.

I: But that was mere hubris. You were still probing in the dark. You had no access to our scientific knowledge.

V: Oh yes we did. In my day, science was just becoming established, and it had been a long road. The Greeks and Romans thought the skies were made of crystal and the stars were little lamps that sometimes fell into the sea. In my time we had gathered enough data to scrap the old ways of understanding the physical world. Finally we had proofs. And yet most people preferred to cling to their superstitious, mystical beliefs. Many of you still do!

I: So life was not perfect in your day either?

V: Far from it. If you divided mankind of my era into twenty parts, nineteen would consist of people who work with their hands and are passive about learning. And in the one final part, how few are actually readers! And the number among those who actually think is exceedingly small.

And the faithful responded ‘Hee-haw hee-haw!’ 

I: You paint a dreary picture, Voltaire.

V: Oh, not always. If I looked hard enough I managed to find a bizarre humor in other people’s mysticism. For example, travelers through Italy told me the story of the Ass of Verona. The original donkey carried the Virgin Mary and Jesus into Jerusalem. The Veronese faithful organized gaudy processions behind a wooden donkey symbolizing the original. At the end of the celebratory Mass, the Verona priest, instead of saying “Ite missa est”, brayed three times with all his might, (Voltaire rises, takes a deep breath and bellows) ‘Hee-haw, hee-haw!’ And the faithful answered in chorus, ‘Hee-haw, hee-haw!’

I: Voltaire, you jest.

V: No, it’s true. Google it! They did it in France, too. Now we have entire books on the Feast of the Ass, and the Feast of Fools; they furnish wonderful material for a history of the human mind.

I: Voltaire, can you leave us on a hopeful note? What kind of real change is needed to make the human race worthy of the name?

V: We are misled by our betters: “Be content with what you have.” They will tell you to “desire nothing above your station”. Indeed! Curb your enthusiasm? If we always followed these maxims, we would still be eating acorns, we would still be sleeping in the open air, and we would not have had Corneille, Racine, Molière, and countless other great minds at play. Liberty is the way forward, ever more liberty. Let men read and let men dance – these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.

I: What is wrong with a little irrational superstition? For simple people, can’t it be comforting in dealing with the unknown? They love their psychics and astrologers.

V: We should not seek to nourish ourselves on acorns when God gives us bread. Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy, the foolish daughters of very wise mothers. These two daughters, superstition and astrology, have subjugated the world for a long time. As I used to say at every opportunity, ‘Ecrasez l’infâme!’ (Crush infamy).

I: Since Socrates and Aristotle, philosophers have searched for the light.

V: Bah! I believe that there never was a creator of a philosophical system who did not confess at the end of his life that he had wasted his time. It must be admitted that the inventor of the mechanical arts have been much more useful than the inventors of syllogisms. He who imagined a ship or a machine towers considerably above he who imagined ideas.

I: But where are we supposed to find this energy for renewal today in a sea of apathy?

V: It is up to each of you to learn to think for yourself. You were born with this ability. If you choose to follow the herd, you deserve what you get.

– Dialogue quoted and adapted from Voltaire’s works, principally le Dictionnaire Philosophique, Treatise on Tolerance, Micromégas, Letters from the English Nation and Candide.

Sketch of Voltaire is by the author.

The article was first published by the Open Letters Monthly. Published here with the kind permission of the author and the Open Letters Monthly.


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