Around the ‘Commentaire historique’
This summer the Voltaire Foundation team have been building up to the publication in September of Voltaire’s Commentaire historique, presented for the first time since its initial publication in 1776 with its dossier of ‘lettres véritables’ and the allegorical poem ‘Sésostris’ serving as a kind of postscript. This work, considered Voltaire’s final masterpiece, spans volumes 78b and 78c of the Complete Works. We have also put online a series of short articles aimed particularly at first-time readers of the Commentaire historique to highlight some of the various postures adopted by its chameleonic author over the course of the text.
We decided to focus on the keyword ‘legacy’: how did Voltaire want to be remembered? The Commentaire historique sees him creating a dossier of historical documentation to memorialise his life. The third-person narrator of Part 1 claims to have just found these letters from Voltaire’s correspondence and proceeds to give a preamble about the philosophe’s life before presenting the letters for posterity. It is as if Voltaire were imagining a historian from long after he has been forgotten, rediscovering this dossier and learning about his remarkable achievements for the first time. Marie-Hélène Cotoni calls it ‘le brillant curriculum vitae qui va lui servir d’introduction’, but it could just as easily be described as a social media profile designed to survive beyond its author’s death. It presents the reader with a heavily doctored version of Voltaire’s life, neatly cropped with just the right filters applied so that some parts are foregrounded while others are obscured. The first of our articles, ‘Voltaire’s legacy under threat’, examines why Voltaire undertook this exercise in brand management.
We then take a tour around three personas that Voltaire chooses to highlight over the course of the Commentaire historique, starting with ‘Voltaire le voyageur’. The text places special emphasis on the philosophe’s tour of Europe during his younger years, visually presented by our annotated map that attempts to trace his voyages as described in the narrative of Part 1 and the letters of Part 2. It is not an easy job, as Voltaire has a tendency to flit from place to place over the course of one sentence without specifying when he arrived or left a particular city or country. He presents himself as a man on a mission, never tiring and always on the move. Furthermore, the religious connotations of this mission become apparent when we take a look at the particular countries he visits and those he avoids.
While he is very active in his younger years, the narrator does not shy away from the fact that his journey is almost over. ‘Voltaire le vieillard’ is a second persona that looms large in the Commentaire historique, representing a man coming to terms with his own mortality as he approaches death. This persona is perhaps best summed up by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s statue of ‘Voltaire nu’, which testifies to the fact that even in iconography, the philosophe continued to stir up controversy. You can read more about the statue and its relevance to the text in our second article, ‘The statues’
The inclusion of the epistolary dossier with the Commentaire historique shows that Voltaire recognises the importance of his status as a letter writer. The presentation of ‘Voltaire épistolaire’ through these letters is, however, far from un-doctored. The repeated insistence on veracity and authenticity is couched in irony and there is ample evidence that these letters may be heavily edited or even forged. The third of our complementary articles, ‘The letters’, therefore addresses the letters themselves and attempts to answer some of the questions readers might have when making their way through Part 2 of this work.
At times contradictory and frequently perplexing, the Commentaire historique is a rewarding text to decrypt and really hammers home some of the essential lessons Voltaire teaches his readers in many of his earlier works. We find ourselves putting these lessons into practice, forever looking for ulterior motives, questioning the author’s authority and resolving to take nothing we read at face value.
– Sam Bailey
 Quoted by Nicholas Cronk, ‘Introduction’, in OCV 78b, ed. Nicholas Cronk (Oxford, 2018), p.1-87 (p.83).
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