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‘Lettres philosophiques’ 4D – coming soon to libraries near you!

Thursday, 30 July, 2020
Voltaire Letters concerning the English nation
Title page of 1733 edition. (Taylor Institution, Arch.8o.E.1733)

Lettres philosophiques! Lettres philosophiques!’, I hear you cry. And I bring you glad tidings: the time has almost come and your thirst will soon be quenched; volume 6B of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire will be released in a matter of months.

The cherry on the cake of our 200-volume edition, vol.6B has been a somewhat tough row to hoe, and for good reason. One of Voltaire’s most iconic texts, the Lettres philosophiques also had a terribly complicated publication history: originally appearing in English in 1733, they were only published in French the following year, simultaneously in London and Rouen. No sooner had they been released than the letter about Locke and the nature of the soul, significantly reworked by the author himself, began to circulate clandestinely (ask Antony McKenna and Gianluca Mori, whose great edition of the ‘Lettre sur M. Locke’ only appeared a few months ago!). Met with more than a bit of resistance by the French authorities, the Lettres soon stopped being printed under their original title, and were merged into the Mélanges de littérature, d’histoire et de philosophie first, and, after Voltaire’s death, into the big potpourri that is the Kehl Dictionnaire philosophique.

Voltaire Lettres philosophiques

Title page of 1734 Jore edition. (British Library, 8465.aa.3.(1.) DRT)

As they moved from one edition to another, from one miscellany to the next, the individual ‘letters’ underwent several changes. And we are not talking about occasional, minor corrections; we are talking about entire ‘letters’ being suppressed, combined with others, or replaced by brand new content. An example? The Jore edition of 1734, the one that we still read today, contained no fewer than four chapters on Newton; by 1756, however, ‘Sur le système de l’attraction’ and ‘Sur l’optique de M. Newton’ were entirely suppressed, and the first half of letter 17 (‘Sur l’infini et la chronologie’) met with the same, tragic destiny. In their place stood ‘De Newton’, a much shorter text in which gravitation and optics were mostly passed over in silence, pre-eminence being rather given to some not particularly laudatory anecdotes: the great Newton – Voltaire writes, possibly gesturing to his own niece, Marie-Louise Denis, who, at the time, also happened to be his lover – would have never risen to fame had it not been for ‘[sa] jolie nièce’ [Catherine Barton]. After all, in 1756 the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton also underwent major cuts, and all elements conspire to suggest that, by the mid-50s, Voltaire’s infatuation with the British mathematician had significantly lost momentum.

Gaining a better understanding of how the Lettres philosophiques may have changed over the forty-odd years between their publication and Voltaire’s death – looking at them in four dimensions, if you like – may cast much-needed light also on the history of other texts. Take, for instance, the Traité sur la tolerance. The impression that one gets from reading the letters that Voltaire sent and received between 1762 and 1763 is that this work was written almost impromptu in the months immediately following the execution of Jean Calas. But is that really the case? To a certain extent, yes. But it is also true that an early version of what would later become chapters 7, 8, 12, and 13 of the Traité could already be found in a rewriting of Letter 13, dating from about 1750: ‘Que les philosophes ne peuvent jamais nuire’. After all, as shown by Gianluigi Goggi, Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, and Olivier Ferret in a wonderful collection of essays published in 2007, Voltaire was an undisputed master of réécriture.[1]

Simple variant readings printed at the bottom of a page of a critical edition are usually sufficient to give the reader a sense of how a text evolved over time. But with the Lettres philosophiques we soon realised that things had to be scaled up a little. Alongside the canonical 25 letters, each with its own variants, vol.6B will therefore contain twenty substantial rewritings as texts in their own right, all furnished with footnotes and (guess what?!) variants! Any overlaps and repetitions between ‘letters’ and variants, or even between variants and substantial rewritings, will be highlighted in grey, and footnotes will guide readers and help them to navigate these somewhat intimidating waters. But might there be other, even better ways of editing a text with such a complex history? Well, that’s one of the questions that we are addressing, as we begin to work on Digital Voltaire.

– Ruggero Sciuto

[1] Copier/coller: écriture et réécriture chez Voltaire. Actes du colloque international (Pise, 30 juin - 2 juillet 2005) (Pisa, 2007).

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