Grace Notes: Studying Fake News About Voltaire, Spread by Voltaire Himself (NYT)

Grace Notes: Studying Fake News About Voltaire, Spread by Voltaire Himself

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But the central figure in this monumental effort to assemble and explicate the works of a central figure in the French Enlightenment is British.

His name is Nicholas Cronk, and he is happy to defend to the death Voltaire’s right to confuse us all. He is also happy to make the case that Voltaire could be slippery with the truth, at least about himself.

Professor Cronk is the director of the Voltaire Foundation at Oxford University, which is issuing “The Oxford Complete Works of Voltaire,” the first exhaustive annotated edition of Voltaire’s writings — novels, plays, letters. “The Oxford Complete Works” will run to 220 volumes by 2020, after the last 18 are completed and released. A pamphlet in the goody bag handed out as the dinner guests left said that Voltaire’s fans revel in his productivity. They love it that his lifetime output far exceeds the word count of the Bible.

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Voltaire wrote the satire, “Candide.”

Credit
Bettmann/Corbis

“I think he wrote too much,” Professor Cronk said, with the nervous laugh of someone racing to ensure that everyone involved in preparing six volumes a year is meeting the deadlines.

He said Voltaire was so prolific because he was popular in his own time. He called him “the first-ever European celebrity.”

“He was famous in London. He was famous in Warsaw,” he said. “And there were translations in Philadelphia in his lifetime.”

Philadelphia was where a more perfect union was formed, and founders like Benjamin Franklin knew Voltaire’s writings. (Franklin later knew Voltaire himself, when Franklin was sent to Paris as the first ambassador of the new nation. Voltaire, who was dying, said, in English, the words “God” and “liberty” to Franklin and his grandson when they visited. “It was completely banal,” Professor Cronk said after recounting the episode, “but it had the ring of brilliance.”)

Voltaire faced the problem that celebrities like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber face nowadays. “You have to give the public material,” Professor Cronk said with another laugh, this one about the idea of mentioning Voltaire in the same breath as the other two. “He produced anecdotes. It is the way he managed his celebrity. He had to be in front of his public.”

And sometimes, Professor Cronk said, Voltaire misled his public. “One doesn’t want to say that he lies,” he said. “But you can say contradictory things to get them listening to you.”

Consider the most basic of facts, the date of Voltaire’s birth.

He was christened in Paris on Nov. 22, 1694. “That is the one sure fact we have,” Professor Cronk said.

Babies were usually christened the day after they were born, he said, so Voltaire’s birthday has long been given as Nov. 21, which would make this the 323rd anniversary of his birth.

But in some letters Voltaire claimed to have been born on Feb. 20 — nine months earlier — and not in Paris, but in Chatenay-en-France, about 25 miles away. Voltaire said his mother had gone there because she was pregnant, but not by her husband.

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The gathering at a Fifth Avenue mansion this month was a birthday party of sorts for Voltaire.



Credit
Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Voltaire claimed the father was an otherwise-forgotten poet named Rochebrune. In a letter in 1744, Voltaire referred to himself as “Rochebrune’s bastard.” Voltaire repeated the idea in 1769, writing to the duke of Richelieu, a close friend and an important figure in the court of Louis XV. Professor Cronk said there was “lots of innuendo” in their letters, and he said that Richelieu “seems to have believed that he himself was illegitimate, so Voltaire was perhaps suggesting they were soul mates.”

And then there was another French intellectual, Jean Louis Dupain, who said he had heard Voltaire announce that he was Rochebrune’s son at a gathering attended by some of Voltaire’s relatives.

“His nieces protested, anxious no doubt to protect the virtue of their beloved aunt” — Voltaire’s mother, who had died when he was young. But Professor Cronk, drawing on work done by Alice Breathe when she worked for the foundation, maintained that “‘it did more honour to his mother that she had preferred a man of wit such as Rochebrune, a musketeer, officer and author’ to her husband.’”

“Worthy but dull, I think is the cliché,” Professor Cronk said, referring to the husband.

In the “Commentaire historique,” an autobiography published in 1776, now being edited by the Voltaire Foundation for the first time since then, Voltaire mentioned both birth dates. Talking about himself in the third person, he wrote: “Some maintain that François de Voltaire was born in February, and others in November. We have medals of him that bear both dates.”

Professor Cronk said the truth was in the baptismal certificate, backed up by affidavits Voltaire signed later in life. “He teases the readers when he’s writing for the public,” Professor Cronk said, “but when he’s in the lawyer’s office signing documents in private he always writes November 21. The evidence of private legal affidavits is probably authoritative.”

He said the fuzziness about his birth date was probably a way of poking fun at his “slightly stuffy conservative father.”

“People often lie about their date of birth to cover up a scandal,” he said. “What I love is he lies about his date of birth to create one.”

It was 18th-century fake news, he said, the kind of thing that modern celebrity websites or supermarket tabloids would ruminate on for weeks.

That is not the only thing about the popular conception of Voltaire that was fake. The line about disagreeing with what you say but defending your right to say it? Mr. Cronk said Voltaire never said it. He said a British biographer made it up in the early 20th century.

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November 19, 2017 at 09:33AM