Friday, December 07, 2012

On the Urgent Vitality of Books

"Vous les méprisez les livres [. . .]; mais songez que tout l'univers connu n'est gouverné que par des livres,
You despise books, but remember that all the known world, excepting only savage nations, is governed by books, writes Voltaire, speaking of the Veda, Koran, and Confucius's proverbs. I like this idea of books ruling the world: constitutions and declarations of independence, university textbooks, a driver's instruction manual, municipal bylaws, and even the phone book. It's certainly easier to argue their effects than to quantify what effect J.K. Rowling or Mo Yan have had on the world.


Si vous avez un procès, votre bien, votre honneur, votre vie même dépend de l'interprétation d'un livre que vous ne lisez jamais. [. . .]  mais il en est des livres comme des hommes, le très-petit nombre joue un grand rôle, le reste est confondu dans la foule.

In a lawsuit or criminal process, your property, your honor, perhaps your life, depends on the interpretation of a book which you never read. It is, however, with books as with men, a very small number play a great part, the rest are confounded with the multitude.


These quotations are from Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique, which was first published in 1764 to a good reception by foreign heads of state, rather counterbalanced by bannings and burnings in Geneva and France and by the threat of the Bastille. (The English translations are by William R. Fleming.) The Enlightener seems to derive much ardency on this subject of books from the very real precarious nature of his own books and of their public reception, in which difficulty he joins Molière and a grand contingent of other Gallic writers, so he says with justice that:
Il est quelquefois bien dangereux de faire un livre.
Especially in terms of religion, suspicion easily arises. (The quotation meant: "It is sometimes very dangerous to make a book.") "Il n'est guère de livre philosophique ou théologique dans lequel on ne puisse trouver des hérésies et des impiétés, pour peu qu'on aide à la lettre." ('There is hardly a single philosophical or theological book in which heresies and impieties may not be found by misinterpreting, or adding to, or subtracting from, the sense.')

Since the rest of the text is long, here it is in English to be enjoyed at leisure, because I love this passage, namely the naughty dissection of the Lord's Prayer, which illuminates the semantic vagaries of the Christian liturgy and specifically of its interpretation.


Illustration: Voltaire, marble bust (1778) by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)
In the collection of the National Gallery of Art. Chester Dale Collection.
Photo from April 10, 2011, by Sarah Stierch. Via Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY 2.0) Licence.
Perhaps it will hardly be believed that Dr. Tamponet one day said to several others: "I would engage to find a multitude of heresies in the Lord's Prayer if this prayer, which we know to have come from the Divine mouth, were now for the first time published by a Jesuit."

I would proceed thus: "Our Father, who art in heaven—" a proposition inclining to heresy, since God is everywhere. Nay, we find in this expression the leaven of Socinianism, for here is nothing at all said of the Trinity.

"Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven—" another proposition tainted with heresy, for it said again and again in the Scriptures that God reigns eternally. Moreover it is very rash to ask that His will may be done, since nothing is or can be done but by the will of God.

"Give us this day our daily bread"—a proposition directly contrary to what Jesus Christ uttered on another occasion: "Take no thought, saying what shall we eat? or what shall we drink?... for after all these things do the Gentiles seek.... But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you."

"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors—" a rash proposition, which compares man to God, destroys gratuitous predestination, and teaches that God is bound to do to us as we do to others. Besides, how can the author say that we forgive our debtors? We have never forgiven them a single crown. No convent in Europe ever remitted to its farmers the payment of a sou. To dare to say the contrary is a formal heresy.

"Lead us not into temptation—" a proposition scandalous and manifestly heretical, for there is no tempter but the devil, and it is expressly said in St. James' Epistle: "God is no tempter of the wicked; He tempts no man."—"Deus enim intentator malorum est; ipse autem neminem tentat."

You see, then, said Doctor Tamponet, that there is nothing, though ever so venerable, to which a bad sense may not be given. What book, then, shall not be liable to human censure when even the Lord's Prayer may be attacked, by giving a diabolical interpretation to all the divine words that compose it?
After this masterly stab in the eye of dogmatism and paranoiac witch-hunting, there is a general discourse on the ennui of the published author:
As for me, I tremble at the thought of making a book. Thank God, I have never published anything; I have not even [. . .] had any of my theatrical pieces played, it would be too dangerous.

If you publish, a parish curate accuses you of heresy; a stupid collegian denounces you; a fellow that cannot read condemns you; the public laugh at you; your bookseller abandons you, and your wine merchant gives you no more credit. I always add to my paternoster, "Deliver me, O God, from the itch of bookmaking."

O ye who, like myself, lay black on white and make clean paper dirty! call to mind the following verses which I remember to have read, and by which we should have been corrected:

Tout ce fatras fat du chauvre en son temps,
Linge il devint par l'art des tisserands;
Puis en lambeaux des pilons le pressèrent
Il fut papier. Cent cerveaux à l'envers
De visions à l'envi le chargèrent;
Puis on le brûle; il vole dans les airs,
Il est fumée aussi bien que la gloire.
De nos travaux voilà quelle est l'histoire,
Tout est fumée, et tout nous fait sentir
Ce grand néant qui doit nous engloutir.

Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire (1784), Vol. XXXXI, "Livres." [Google Books] (Search term: Voltaire proposition sentant l'hérésie) De l'Imprimerie de la Sociétée Littéraire-Typographique. p. 428, 432.

A Philosophical Dictionary (1901), by Voltaire, transl. by William R. Fleming, Vol. II []

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