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…

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