May 2nd 2013

Voltaire: I Groan In Silence

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

Voltaire looks up from his quill pen but does not rise as I enter his study for our interview. He is working alone, his bald head covered by a skull cap. A shoulder-length wig is draped on a wooden stand nearby. The first thing that strikes me is what a shrunken little guy he is, at odds with the large, lasting impression he made as a rapscallion in his heyday. Second, he didn’t dress up for this fantasy visit. He is wearing a housecoat, probably naked underneath. Voltaire’s view of our modern world turns out to be strangely similar to his commentaries on the 18th century. The world turns, it would seem, but does not evolve. Much of his writing fits the human predicament of today – needless war, abuse of power, fraudulent democracies, religious fanaticism. As he looks me over, his eyes twinkle. He is more comfortable than I am. With some exuberance, he extends a bony hand. I don’t know whether to shake it or kiss it. I shake it.

Herewith, a transcript of our interview.

INTERVIEWER: Monsieur Voltaire, I presume?

VOLTAIRE: Yes indeed, and a very good day to you, mon ami. It’s wonderful to meet the press and sound off again. I never thought I’d have another chance.

I: May we start with a scene-setter? Where have you been? We have missed you. We have neededyou. Did the devil take you?

V: No, I have not been in hell, as my enemies hoped. I have been in heaven and I am happier than ever. I didn’t quite believe heaven existed, but it turns out to be the perfect place for the likes of me. For one thing, we have no royal policemen checking on us every five minutes. Where did they end up, I wonder … ?

I: Let’s talk ‘big picture’ for a moment. How about life on our planet – surely you agree that it has changed for the better since you passed to the other side in 1778 after eighty years of troublemaking? You like what you see?

V: Oh no, I am disgusted! (He bangs his tiny fist on the writing table.) My lifetime of campaigning for the right to say what you think has proven to be a waste of time. Speaking out is still viewed as an inconvenience in too many of your countries, east, west and middle east. Entire peoples are afraid to speak their minds. The level of political discourse is juvenile. Superstition reigns. I have come back to sound the alarm – to try once more to wake up the world to the most sinister dangers. Political correctness. Fanaticism. Injustice.

I: Are you finished?

V: No, there is more — control of the populace by governments. Authoritarian rule is on the rise. Whatever happened to democracy? I always thought it would work at least in small countries. Your presidents want to hoard their power, just as our leaders did in my day. The people are scarcely consulted. Liberty is more fragile than ever. I warned about such things 200 years ago. Was no one listening?

I: Your cautionary writings about warfare seem to have zero impact. Are we guilty of repeating history?

V: Yes, you are. War is a plague that never stops. We had ghastly wars in my day, and the rules have not changed. Murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. How is it that we cross the sea to slaughter our brothers just because they dress in red smocks and wear turbans? How is it that we recruit citizen soldiers by making a noise with two little sticks on a cowhide membrane? And after battles have been won, come the celebrations! The sky is alight with rockets and the air is rent with the sound of bells, cannon and Te Deum on the cathedral organ. I groan in silence over murders that caused this public rejoicing.

To want your country to be great is to wish your neighbors ill.

I: Please, give the armies credit for their honest patriotism if nothing else.

V: I don’t think so. To be a good patriot is very often to be the enemy of the rest of mankind. A patriot wants his country to prosper through trade and be powerful through armament. Clearly, one country cannot win without another losing, and it cannot conquer without making some people unhappy.(Wagging his finger.) So that is the human condition: to want your country to be great is to wish your neighbors ill.

I: Perhaps we have been too slow to learn our lessons?

V: Indeed. What can we say to a man who tells you that he would rather obey his God than man, and that therefore he is sure to go to heaven for butchering you? Fanatics are sometimes guided by rascals who put the dagger into their hands. These rascals are like the old man of lore who made imbeciles taste the joys of paradise and then promised them an eternity of pleasure on the condition that they assassinate all those he would name.

I: Yes, but that was then.

V: Not quite. Look around you. The identical situation prevails today. I once wrote a fable about a giant from another planet visiting earth and observing humans at war. The traveler, shuddering at what he saw, begged to know the cause of the horrible quarrels among such a puny race. The subject of the dispute was a pitiful mole-hill called Palestine, no larger than his heel. Need I provide specifics of your more modern struggles?

I: Don’t bother. I get your point. The human race is violent by nature.

V: Indeed. It requires twenty years for man to rise from the vegetative state in his mother’s womb, through childhood and adolescence until maturity of reason begins to appear. It has taken us centuries to learn a little about his blood, bone and sinew. (Shaking his head, eyes closed.) It takes an instant to kill him.

I: Would you agree that what we need is a sense of generosity toward each other to replace our urge to kill?

V: Yes, and this brings me to my most important theme – tolerance. What is tolerance? I once wrote an entire treatise on it. We are mere human beings — formed of weakness, inconsistencies, fickleness and error: let us pardon each others’ follies. That was and still is the first law of enlightened nature. It is clear that only a monster persecutes another because he is not of the same opinion.

I: Yet intolerance springs eternal in our species.

V: I invite the political powers of the world to say that they truly believe that kindness toward peoples would produce the same revolts that cruelty does. Of course the contrary is true. If men revolt when mistreated, it follows that they will not revolt if treated well.

An earthquake can swallow us all alike; that will be the ultimate justice 

I: At least justice will be served. Those who transgressed will eventually pay. Or will they?

V: Those reverend fathers of the Inquisition and its derivatives will be crushed just like other people. As we saw in Lisbon in 1755, an earthquake can swallow us all alike. That, my friend, will be the ultimate justice.

I. Most people only remember you for your harmless little tale Candide.

V. Candide was nothing great – I didn’t even like it — but it was far from harmless. It was full of malice, in fact. And you will excuse me if I say I am proud of my legacy. I left behind a mountain of poetry, prose, polemics, history, drama and private correspondence. I was the most popular playwright in Europe for many decades after my death. And some industrious souls at Oxford are still pulling my entire oeuvre together in a set of two hundred volumes. I wrote compulsively, day and night, about everything that mattered to me — and this was before email, Twitter and Facebook. Think of the ink I spilled!

I. We also remember you for saying you might disagree with us but would defend to the death our right to say it.

V. Wrong again. That was not I. It was a line – and a brilliant line it was – in a book published in London more than a hundred years ago called The Friends of Voltaire. I wish I had said it!

I: So you specialized in provocations. Monarchies trembled. What is your sweetest memory of impaling your targets?

V: Oh I had much pleasure in needling the grandees of my day – and I was glad to see that England, our big rival at that time, allowed and even encouraged this practice all those years ago. One of my most powerful little books was something I called Letters from the English Nation — a virtual hymn to England, singing the praises of the British and knowing how my words would be resented back across the Channel in France. They hated it when I wrote that “in England, people think, and literature is more honored than in France.”

I: Surely you don’t claim that England was a well-ordered society in the 18th century!

V: No, and being well-ordered is not the point. English genius has been like an unruly tree planted by nature, throwing a thousand branches in all directions and growing irregularly but vigorously. Genius dies if you seek to force its nature and trim it.

I: So did your little ruse work out?

V: Oh yes. They loved that book in old England. Not so much in France. (He lets out a high-pitched giggle.) They burned it in Paris.

I: And you went to your grave hating France?

V: No, no. I loved France – I still do — but I could not resist poking fun at the pompous people. One of my Candide characters says that when traveling in France he noted that half the inhabitants were insane, some were too cunning for their own good, others were rather good-natured but plain stupid. In all the provinces the principal occupation was fucking; the second, speaking ill of each other; and the third, just babbling nonsense. I wonder how much of this still applies today. Quite a bit, I would say. Plus ça change, as a French writer once said, well after my time.

I: Weren’t you always in trouble with your enemies, especially the critics?

V: Yes but I got even. I let rip against those who didn’t like me. I created a typical example of the genre, a Frenchman, naturally. He probably recognized himself. I called my character a fat swine, a wretched fellow who earned his living by trying to destroy all plays and all books; a reptile, a hack, a newspaper scribbler. You still have critics like that hanging around.

Journalists working among men of letters are like bats among the birds

I: Do you mean to say that newspapers writers serve no useful purpose?

V: The journalist produces the lowest kind of literature and is scorned even by the people. Yet these scribblers call themselves authors! The only authors are those who have succeeded in a genuine art, be it epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, history or philosophy, and who teach or delight mankind. The others, the journalists working among men of letters, are like bats among the birds.

I: Didn’t you sum up your thinking from A to Z in your Philosophical Dictionary?

V: Yes, that format gave me the opportunity to write about everything under the sun, and it’s in that book that I find I can make connections with your modern times. We thought our period was the beginning of an enlightened era, free of superstition. We were full of ourselves, and rightly so.

I: But that was mere hubris. You were still probing in the dark. You had no access to our scientific knowledge.

V: Oh yes we did. In my day, science was just becoming established, and it had been a long road. The Greeks and Romans thought the skies were made of crystal and the stars were little lamps that sometimes fell into the sea. In my time we had gathered enough data to scrap the old ways of understanding the physical world. Finally we had proofs. And yet most people preferred to cling to their superstitious, mystical beliefs. Many of you still do!

I: So life was not perfect in your day either?

V: Far from it. If you divided mankind of my era into twenty parts, nineteen would consist of people who work with their hands and are passive about learning. And in the one final part, how few are actually readers! And the number among those who actually think is exceedingly small.

And the faithful responded ‘Hee-haw hee-haw!’ 

I: You paint a dreary picture, Voltaire.

V: Oh, not always. If I looked hard enough I managed to find a bizarre humor in other people’s mysticism. For example, travelers through Italy told me the story of the Ass of Verona. The original donkey carried the Virgin Mary and Jesus into Jerusalem. The Veronese faithful organized gaudy processions behind a wooden donkey symbolizing the original. At the end of the celebratory Mass, the Verona priest, instead of saying “Ite missa est”, brayed three times with all his might, (Voltaire rises, takes a deep breath and bellows) ‘Hee-haw, hee-haw!’ And the faithful answered in chorus, ‘Hee-haw, hee-haw!’

I: Voltaire, you jest.

V: No, it’s true. Google it! They did it in France, too. Now we have entire books on the Feast of the Ass, and the Feast of Fools; they furnish wonderful material for a history of the human mind.

I: Voltaire, can you leave us on a hopeful note? What kind of real change is needed to make the human race worthy of the name?

V: We are misled by our betters: “Be content with what you have.” They will tell you to “desire nothing above your station”. Indeed! Curb your enthusiasm? If we always followed these maxims, we would still be eating acorns, we would still be sleeping in the open air, and we would not have had Corneille, Racine, Molière, and countless other great minds at play. Liberty is the way forward, ever more liberty. Let men read and let men dance – these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.

I: What is wrong with a little irrational superstition? For simple people, can’t it be comforting in dealing with the unknown? They love their psychics and astrologers.

V: We should not seek to nourish ourselves on acorns when God gives us bread. Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy, the foolish daughters of very wise mothers. These two daughters, superstition and astrology, have subjugated the world for a long time. As I used to say at every opportunity, ‘Ecrasez l’infâme!’ (Crush infamy).

I: Since Socrates and Aristotle, philosophers have searched for the light.

V: Bah! I believe that there never was a creator of a philosophical system who did not confess at the end of his life that he had wasted his time. It must be admitted that the inventor of the mechanical arts have been much more useful than the inventors of syllogisms. He who imagined a ship or a machine towers considerably above he who imagined ideas.

I: But where are we supposed to find this energy for renewal today in a sea of apathy?

V: It is up to each of you to learn to think for yourself. You were born with this ability. If you choose to follow the herd, you deserve what you get.

– Dialogue quoted and adapted from Voltaire’s works, principally le Dictionnaire Philosophique, Treatise on Tolerance, Micromégas, Letters from the English Nation and Candide.


Sketch of Voltaire is by the author.

The article was first published by the Open Letters Monthly. Published here with the kind permission of the author and the Open Letters Monthly.




 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "The absence of effective federal oversight and management of the COVID-19 crisis will undoubtedly be judged by historians as the biggest US governmental calamity of all time."
Mar 29th 2020
EXTRACT: " South Korea is one of the world’s most advanced countries........... But so, too, is the United States. Why, then, has the US lagged so far behind in its response to the pandemic? The short answer is that the US has a president who is fundamentally unfit for the job, both intellectually and temperamentally."
Mar 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "A large part of the fallout to date – particularly on stock markets – has actually been from negative sentiment rather than real effects."
Mar 24th 2020
EXTRACT: ".........every component of aggregate demand – consumption, capital spending, exports – is in unprecedented free fall. While most self-serving commentators have been anticipating a V-shaped downturn – with output falling sharply for one quarter and then rapidly recovering the next – it should now be clear that the COVID-19 crisis is something else entirely. The contraction that is now underway looks to be neither V- nor U- nor L-shaped (a sharp downturn followed by stagnation). Rather, it looks like an I: a vertical line representing financial markets and the real economy plummeting..............The risk of a new Great Depression, worse than the original – a Greater Depression – is rising by the day."
Mar 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "President Donald Trump and US policymakers have thus far favored piecemeal measures, especially when it comes to the state directing – indeed, reorganizing – the private sector. Their instinctive belief in the superiority of the market and private initiatives, regardless of the circumstances, leads them to recoil from the scale of government intervention needed to save our lives and livelihoods."
Mar 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "Back in July 2019, while in Michigan for one of the early Democratic Party presidential debates, I was invited to a small dinner with Bernie Sanders. Toward the end of the meal, those who remained at the table included actor/activist Danny Glover, Dr. Cornel West, former Mayor Gus Newport, Jane Sanders, and a few key campaign staffers. What ensued was a free-flowing discussion of the agents of social and political change, sprinkled with personal recollections of and lessons learned from historical figures – many of whom had been known by my dinner companions.......I came away from that evening seeing Bernie Sanders in a different light. He was, and still is, a candidate for the presidency of the United States. At the same time, he must also be seen as a transformative figure in modern American political history."
Mar 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Why are we more scared of what is less likely to kill us? The psychological principle that makes us fear swine flu, avian flu, or COVID-19, but not the common flu is called fear of dread risks. It is easy to elicit fear of episodes in which many people die within a short interval, such as plane crashes or epidemics. But when just as many or more people die over a longer period – as with car accidents or the seasonal flu – it is difficult to scare the public into wearing seatbelts or getting vaccinated."
Mar 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "But if containment measures fail – as we are seeing in Italy just now – the banks may still end up in trouble. They may also stop lending again, in which case the asset bubbles would collapse and a long-term recession would become a certainty. Central banks and governments would have to step in with more assistance: as well as further interest rate cuts, they look likely to try more QE and potentially bailouts like in 2007-09 if necessary. But given the limited scope this time around, if the global economy stalls for the long term, these measures might still fail and central bankers could potentially lose control of the marketplace altogether. In such a situation, we would be in truly uncharted territory." PICTURE BELOW: WORLD DEBT.
Mar 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Russian resistance appears to have derived from fears that if they cut back exports and OPEC managed to keep the price high, US petroleum firms using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) would simply rush in to grab Russian markets in Europe........So the theory that Russia provoked the price fall to harm US fracking companies is incorrect. They provoked it to avoid being harmed by the American producers, as they saw it."
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "I was recently walking along East 29th Street in Manhattan, after visiting a friend at Bellevue Hospital, when I was roused from my thoughts by a middle-aged white male screaming at an old Chinese man, “Get the fuck out of my country, you piece of Chinese shit!” The old man was stunned. So was I, before I bellowed back (deploying the full range of my native Australian vocabulary), “Fuck off and leave him alone, you white racist piece of shit!”  The pedestrian traffic stopped. A young white guy with dark hair came storming toward me. As a non-pugilist by instinct and training, I braced for what was coming. He stopped just short of me and said, “Thank you for standing up for him. That’s why I fought in Iraq; so that people like him could be free.” "
Mar 6th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Dreyfus was originally arrested and convicted on charges of selling military secrets to Germany – France’s historical enemy. But because he was a Jew, his guilt was assumed from the start, particularly by most of the French officer corps. To ensure that the charges would stick, various conspirators fabricated evidence against Dreyfus, including a secret file that only the judges who handed down the conviction and prison sentence were allowed to see........In the Dreyfus Affair, a savagely right-wing press fanned the flames of anti-Semitism and intrigue among elites, just as Fox News does today against Trump’s enemies. Owing to these malign efforts, truth itself becomes blurred,........Most depressing of all, though, is the fact that no senior figure in the US has come forward to stand alongside Vindman. There has been no Zola to issue the equivalent of the famous “J’Accuse!” pamphlet, shaming the country’s complicit elites for their lies and corruption. Instead, men like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton have put their personal interests first, remaining mostly silent......"
Mar 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "After nearly four years of inveighing against the US intelligence officials and analysts who revealed Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump is finally acting fully on his paranoia by carrying out a purge. "
Mar 3rd 2020
EXTRACTS: "........the next global recession could be around the corner – and that it may look a lot different from those that began in 2001 and 2008.........unlike the two previous global recessions this century, the new coronavirus, COVID-19, implies a supply shock as well as a demand shock. ..........In contrast to recessions driven mainly by a demand shortfall, the challenge posed by a supply-side-driven downturn is that it can result in sharp declines in production and widespread bottlenecks. In that case, generalized shortages – something that some countries have not seen since the gas lines of 1970s – could ultimately push inflation up, not down."
Feb 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "The EU must ask itself if it is prepared to do what is necessary to remain an independent player, united in the common interest of all Europeans. Otherwise, Europe’s viability as a democratic, sovereign entity in control of its own destiny will be called into question – and therefore tested by adversaries – like never before."
Feb 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The world economy has clearly caught a cold. The outbreak of COVID-19 came at a particularly vulnerable point in the global business cycle. ...........This matters little to the optimistic consensus of investors. After all, by definition shocks are merely temporary disruptions of an underlying trend. While it is tempting to dismiss this shock for that very reason, the key is to heed the implications of the underlying trend. The world economy was weak, and getting weaker, when COVID-19 struck. The V-shaped recovery trajectory of a SARS-like episode will thus be much tougher to replicate – especially with monetary and fiscal authorities in the US, Japan, and Europe having such little ammunition at their disposal. That, of course, was the big risk all along. In these days of dip-buying froth, China’s sneeze may prove to be especially vexing for long-complacent financial markets."
Feb 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that this new coronavirus is likely to do much more damage than SARS. Not only has COVID-19 already caused more deaths than its predecessor; its economic consequences are likely to be compounded by unfavorable conditions – beginning with China’s increased economic vulnerability.................So far, US investors seem unconcerned about these risks. But they may be taking too much comfort from the US Federal Reserve’s three interest-rate cuts last year. Should the US economy falter, there is nowhere near enough room for the Fed to cut interest rates by 500 basis points, as it has in past recessions."
Feb 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Beyond the usual economic and policy risks that most financial analysts worry about, a number of potentially seismic white swans are visible on the horizon this year. Any of them could trigger severe economic, financial, political, and geopolitical disturbances unlike anything since the 2008 crisis."
Feb 18th 2020
Extract: "In late 2019, Zogby Research Services (ZRS) once again had the opportunity to poll public opinion across the Middle East and North Africa about many of these issues that are of such critical concern to the region and its peoples..............One of the more intriguing results in our 2019 survey were the changes in Arab views toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Arabs still blame the US and Israel for the absence of peace and have little confidence that the conflict can be resolved in the near future. Maybe as a result of this despair, this issue now ranks low as an Arab priority. Also noteworthy is the fact that majorities in most Arab countries now say that normalization with Israel, which they acknowledge is already happening, may be a good thing. This development shouldn’t be overstated, however, since there is still no love for Israel. It appears, from our survey, to be born of frustration, weariness with Palestinians being victims of war, and the possibility that normalization might bring some economic benefits and could give Arabs leverage to press Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Global dissatisfaction with democracy has increased over the past 25 years, according to our recent report. Drawing upon the HUMAN Surveys project, the report covered 154 countries, with 77 countries covered continuously for the period from 1995 to 2020. These samples were possible thanks to the combination of data from over 25 sources, 3,500 national surveys, and 4 million respondents. Not surprisingly, the gloomy headline finding – rising democratic dissatisfaction – attracted the most attention. Less widely discussed, however, is the “good news” – that a small sample of countries has bucked the trend, and have record high levels of satisfaction with their democracies."
Feb 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "This is how dictatorships begin. As the US prepares for its next presidential election in November, it is every citizen’s responsibility rationally to examine Trump’s dictatorial impulses, which reelection would only reinforce. It is not safe to assume that he won’t go too far, or that he is too much of a “mediocrity” – as Leon Trotsky called Stalin (an assessment with which many Bolsheviks agreed) – to transform his country......Vladimir Lenin, himself a ruthless Bolshevik, wrote in 1922 that, “Stalin concentrated in his hands enormous power, which he won’t be able to use responsibly,” owing to traits like rudeness, intolerance, and capriciousness. Trump has all of them in spades. The more power he concentrates in his own hands, the dimmer the long-term outlook for American democracy becomes. His reelection could mean lights out."