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Celebrating Voltaire: A Symposium

Wednesday, 6 April, 2016
J. Patrick Lee J. Patrick Lee

McGill University in Montréal sponsored a Symposium on 9th March to celebrate its recent acquisition of J. Patrick Lee’s Voltaire Collection. Pat Lee, as he was known to friends and colleagues, was a pre-eminent American Voltaire scholar, an inspiring teacher and a gifted university administrator. He was also a discriminating bibliophile. At his death in 2006, his library held some 11,000 volumes and many manuscripts. Of these, McGill purchased 1,994 rare and important items, including 35 manuscripts in the hand of Voltaire, Madame du Châtelet, and others in Voltaire’s circle; there are 245 stand-alone editions of Candide, 39 of Zadig, 54 of the Dictionnaire philosophique, and 21 of La Henriade, as well as American imprints of Voltaire’s works, and volumes with notable American provenance. The Symposium proved worthy of this remarkable collection. Held in the ballroom of the University Faculty Club, a capacity audience of students, academics, and members of the public was treated to series of lectures (some in French and some in English) presenting an overview of Voltaire’s life and career. Recurring themes were Voltaire’s role in promoting Enlightenment values and his battles against intolerance, superstition and religious fanaticism (Josiane Boulad-Ayoub), his relationship with England and the English (Richard Virr, Edward Langille), his latter day image as the patriarch of Ferney (Simon Davies), and, of course, his image beyond the grave (Hans-Jurgen Lüsebrink). McGill Librarian Ann Marie Holland talked on the many versions of the Dictionnaire philosophique held in the Lee Collection.

From left to right: Marie-Claude Felton, Ethel Groffier, Benoît Melançon, Ugo Dionne, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne From left to right: Marie-Claude Felton, Ethel Groffier, Benoît Melançon, Ugo Dionne, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne

Towards the end of the afternoon, the participants engaged in an exhilarating roundtable discussion on the question: ‘Why does Voltaire matter in the 21st century?’ which inevitably focused on the religious fanaticism of last year's murderous attacks in France (Ethel Groffier, Ugo Dionne, Benoît Melançon, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne). A sceptical Benoît Melançon doubted whether sales of Voltaire’s Traité sur la tolérance really could have attained the 185,000 copies reported in the aftermath of those attacks, or at least whether any of those who did buy it actually read it or merely had it as a kind of talisman. And he wondered too, as others have done, whether Voltaire is a writer whose works everyone quotes but no one reads. It is ironic to reflect that Voltairian slogans on free speech and religious tolerance were widely quoted after the attacks, rather as the faithful recite prayers in times of grief. And like a secular saint, his image became familiar on posters and banners at free-speech rallies throughout France.

Robert Darnton Robert Darnton

The keynote address was delivered by the Enlightenment historian Robert Darnton, who took us (happily) back to the eighteenth century and its fascination with Voltaire, the best-selling author. Darnton’s account of how the 75 year-old played publishers off, one against the other, in order to secure for his monumental Questions sur l’Encyclopédie as wide a readership as possible, provided a riveting conclusion to the day’s proceedings. Mounted in conjunction with the Voltaire Symposium is an exhibition of works by or on Voltaire covering nearly three centuries. Contemporary editions of Voltaire’s works are juxtaposed with the key 20th-century editions of Voltaire’s most popular work, Candide (MacLennan Library). The acquisition of the J. Patrick Lee Voltaire Collection at McGill University puts the land of ‘quelques arpents de neige’ on the map as an important centre of Voltaire and Enlightenment scholarship. – E. M. Langille, St Francis Xavier University (View a video recording of the Symposium here.)