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Voltaire’s Grin


His enemies said he had the “most hideous” smile in Europe. It was a thin, skull-like smile that sneered at everything sacred: religion, love, patriotism, censorship, and the harmony of the spheres. It was a smile of mockery, cynicism, and lechery. It was the sort of smile, said Coleridge, that you would find on the face of “a French hairdresser.”

It was certainly the most famous smile in eighteenth-century Europe. But reproduced in a thousand paintings, statues, busts, caricatures, miniatures, and medallions, you can now see that it was more of a tight-lipped grin. Voltaire himself, rather tenderly, called it the grin of “a maimed monkey” (“un singe estropié“). And he wrote to his fellow philosophes, “Always march forward along the highway of Truth, my brothers, grinning derisively.” To understand just something of that celebrated monkey grin—which symbolizes both Voltaire’s intelligence and his mischief—is to understand a great deal about the Europe he tried to change.

Nineteen-ninety-four was Voltaire’s tricentenary. Learned foundations celebrated his birthday in Oxford, Geneva, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Paris. He was, especially, the toast of the French intellectuals and media persons and appeared (by proxy) on the influential Bernard Pivot television show, Bouillon de Culture (Culture Soup). A great exhibition of his life and times, Voltaire et l’Europe, ran for two and a half months at the Hôtel de la Monnaie in Paris, organized by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The deputy editor of Le Monde, Edwy Plenel, christened him “the father of investigative journalism.”

The publishers did him proud. New critical studies (Voltaire Le Conquérant, by Pierre Lepape), new anthologies (Le Rire de Voltaire, by Pascal Debailly), new paperbacks (Voltaire: Ecrivains de Toujours, by René Pomeau). Candide appeared as a cartoon strip by Wolinski. The Pléiade library completed the publication of his correspondence in thirteen volumes. The Voltaire Foundation (by a quirk of fate, based at Oxford) continued its monumental edition of the Complete Works in 150 volumes, the Life in five volumes, and Voltaire for the desktop on CD-ROM. The magazine Lire sold terra-cotta busts of his monkey head by mail order, price 3,500 francs plus postage on the eight-kilo package.

Although much of Voltaire’s life was spent in exile (England, Holland, Switzerland, and Germany), he has become a palpable presence in Paris. A street, a lycée, a métro station, a café, a bank note, and even a style of armchair (upright, for hours of reading) have been named after him. His grinning statues can be found everywhere, in unexpected corners of the city, bringing the touch of irony to some grand historic purlieus: gingerly seated in the Comédie-Française; niched like a Bacchus upstairs at his old Quartier Latin haunt in the Café Procope; hovering downstairs in the musty crypt of the Pantheon: genially hosting a reception room (“La Salle des Philosophes”) in the Musée Carnavalet; or peering mockingly out of a little shrubbery outside the Institut de France at the bottom of the rue de Seine.

But there is a paradox in this stately, official spread of his works and influence. Voltaire was, par excellence, the free intellectual spirit. All his life he hated organizations, systems, canonizations, state authorities, and scholarly apparatus. He quarreled continuously with the Church, the Government, the Law, and the intellectual Establishment of his time. He even quarreled with his fellow authors of the great Encyclopédie, that monument to the French eighteenth-century Enlightenment, because he thought the edition was too big and too long for the ordinary reader, whom he championed.

Though Voltaire began his professional life as an author of epic poems (La Henriade, 1723), of vast histories (Le Siècle de Louis XIV, 1740–1751), and mighty verse tragedies (Oedipe, 1718; La Mort de César, 1735) his true genius emerged as the master of brief forms. Speed and brevity is the hallmark of his gift and style. His great work is always scored allegro vivace. The short story, the pungent essay, the treatise, the “portable” dictionary, the provoking letter, even the stinging single-sentence epigram: these now appear as the enduring and popular vehicles of his art.

Almost everything he has to say is somewhere touched on in the twenty-six contes philosophiques which he wrote between 1738 (Micromégas) and 1773 (The White Bull). All were the fiery distillations of age, observation, and bitter experience: an eau de vie of literature. They are set over the entire globe, and also out of it; and many of them take the form of fantastic travelers’ tales. They were frequently published anonymously (like Candide), and while delighting in their success Voltaire often continued to deny authorship, and mocked the whole enterprise. His modesty was perverse. He once wrote: “I try to be very brief and slightly spicy: or else the Ministers and Madame de Pompadour and the clerks and the maidservants will all make paper-curlers of my pages.”

His bon mots have traveled more widely than anything else, though their precision is often difficult to translate. They give some measure of the man. “Use a pen, start a war.” (“Qui plume a, guerre a.”) “God is not on the side of the big battalions, but of the best shots.” “In this country [England] it is thought a good idea to kill an admiral, from time to time, to encourage the others.” “The superfluous, that most necessary commodity.” (“Le superflu, chose très nécessaire.”) “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” “We owe respect to the living; but to the dead we owe nothing but the truth.” “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”1 And most famous of all, Candide’s wry philosophic conclusion about the lesson of his terrible adventures: “That is well said, replied Candide, but we must cultivate our garden.” These, and many like them, have remained part of that mysterious European currency of the ironic. They are the verbal equivalents, the linguistic icons, of Voltaire’s mocking grin.

Brevity, irony, and a particular kind of fantastical logic were Voltaire’s chosen weapons. They might appear curiously lightweight for his chosen targets: the great armies of the European night—fanaticism, intolerance, persecution, injustice, cruelty. But Voltaire was a natural-born fighter, an intellectual pugilist. He relished combat, and he committed himself absolutely to the battle of ideas. Like a later master of the ring, he “floated” and danced like a butterfly but stung like a bee. For all his elegance, he could strike with stunning ferocity. A convinced anticleric, he could write of priests of every denomination who “rise from an incestuous bed, manufacture a hundred versions of God, then eat and drink God, then piss and shit God.” He never pulled his punches, and he made enemies all his life, and he made them after it.

His commitment to the freedom of ideas is historically significant. The French rightly celebrate him as the first “engaged” intellectual who attached himself to specific social and political causes. For them, Voltaire laid the foundations—in an almost architectural sense—of a unique European tradition. They see a line that runs straight as the “Grand Axis” in Paris (that great vista from the seven-teenth-century Louvre palace to the twentieth-century Arche de la Défense), from Voltaire via Hugo and Zola to Sartre and Camus. When General de Gaulle was urged to arrest Sartre for subversion during the 1960s, he replied: “one does not put Voltaire in the Bastille.”

For Voltaire, the essence of intellectual freedom was wit. Wit—which means both intelligence and humor—was the primary birthright of man. The free play of wit brings enlightenment and also a certain kind of laughter: the laughter that distinguishes man from the beasts. But it is not a simple kind of laughter; it is also close to tears. Voltaire’s symbolic grin (as we begin to examine it) contains both these elements when he surveys the human condition. Life amuses and delights him; but it also causes him pain and grief. In his Questions sur L’Encyclopédie (1772), he wrote this entry about “Le Rire,” an epitome of both his thought and his style.

Anyone who has ever laughed will hardly doubt that laughter is the sign of joy, as tears are the symptom of grief. But those who seek the metaphysical causes of laughter are not light-hearted people. Those who know precisely why the type of joy which excites laughter should pull the zygomatic muscle (one of the thirteen muscles in the mouth) upwards towards the ears, are simply clever people. Animals have this muscle like us. But animals never laugh with joy, anymore than they weep tears of sadness. It is true that deer excrete fluid from their eyes when they are being hunted to death. So do dogs when they are undergoing vivisection. But they never weep for their mistresses or their friends, as we do. Nor do they burst into laughter at the sight of something comic. Man is the sole animal who cries and laughs.

The simple conclusion is profoundly deceptive. The sentences gather irony, even as they shorten, and the blows strike home. What is this entry really about? Is it human laughter, or human stupidity, or human cruelty? Voltaire’s wit is so often double-edged like this. His tales, his essays, his epigrams cut as we smile. And nothing is sacred. Consider what he wrote about human lovemaking, in one of his letters:

Snails have the good fortune to be both male and female…. They give pleasure and receive it at the same time. Their enjoyment is not just twice as much as ours, it also lasts considerably longer. They are in sexual rapture for three or four hours at a stretch. Admittedly, that is not long compared to Eternity. But it would be a long time for you and me.

This is the intellectual physiognomy, so to speak, of Voltaire’s grin. But what gave it the particular historical twist, which makes it seem like the insignia of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment? Voltaire’s father François Arouet (originally from Poitou) was a successful lawyer to the French aristocracy. His beautiful mother (Voltaire always traveled with her portrait) died when he was only six. The youngest surviving child, he was born in November 1694 in the heart of Paris, on the Ile de la Cité.

The comfortable house stood within sight of the Palais de Justice (also the police headquarters) and the long rows of bookstalls already established along the Seine. There is something symbolic in this position. Voltaire’s literary genius always contained both the lawyer’s delight in argument and the poet’s sense of fantasy. His wit—from childhood, swift, logical, and provocative—somehow combined these two contradictory elements. (Flaubert said long afterward, in Madame Bovary, that “every lawyer carries inside him the wreckage of a poet.”)

Young François-Marie Arouet (le jeune) was hyperactive, almost a child prodigy—clever, mischievous, and barely governable. He started as he meant to go on. He flourished under his Jesuit teachers at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, driving them to distraction with his pranks. There is a famous story of how he got the school fires lit earlier than usual one winter term. The rule was that no heating was permitted until the water froze in the stone holy-water stoop in the school chapel. Arouet accelerated this process by bringing in a large sheet of ice from the schoolyard, and slipping it unnoticed into the stoop. He was flogged when the trick was discovered, but in recompense the fires were also lit. It was a young poet-lawyer’s solution: the letter of the law was observed, because the holy water did indeed freeze; but the spirit of the law was made a mockery, because Arouet had invented the ice. It was, perhaps, his first conte philosophique in action.

  1. 1

    This often-cited dictum of freespeech is actually an attribution, and has no precise French original. It is a paraphrase of Voltaire’s letter to Helvétius (on the burning of Helvétius’s De L’esprit in 1759) first made by S.G. Tallentyre (E. Beatrice Hall) in her book The Friends of Voltaire (1907).

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