Profane Illuminations

Here are some marvelous paragraphs from David A. Bell’s review essay on Leo Damrosch’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius and Roger Pearson’s Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom, introduced in the last post.

In the twenty-first century the Enlightenment appears anything but the triumphant imperial “project” denounced by vulgar postmodernists. Its heritage is fragile and endangered. Admittedly, its works remain in the “canon”–but perhaps only because they go largely unread in certain quarters. I sometimes wonder what would happen if, for instance, a public university system asked all entering students to read Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, with its deep, deliberate offensiveness toward Christianity. What if a major studio attempted to film his Mahomet, a play far more systematically disparaging of the Prophet than Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?

If nothing else, though, our own century’s retreat from the Enlightenment should help us appreciate that this great movement of ideas has been a fragile thing all along, and never more than in its supposed eighteenth century heyday. Its swift apparent triumph in the American and French revolutions makes it easy to forget that its greatest authors constantly ran afoul of the authorities and took great personal risks throughout their careers. Both Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as these two excellent new biographies point out, had books officially shredded and burned in Paris–even if, in Voltaire’s case, the responsible official surreptitiously substituted another volume at the last minute, so as to take the offending one home for himself. Roger Pearson reminds us that Voltaire served several stints in prison, lived much of his life in exile from his native France and had to have the sheets of his first great work, the Philosophical Letters, smuggled into Paris in a furniture cart. Even his most famous patron, Prussia’s Frederick the Great, once remarked of him: “I shall have need of him for another year at most, no longer. One squeezes the orange and throws away the peel.” As for Rousseau, Leo Damrosch recalls that the threat of prosecution kept him constantly on the move among France, Switzerland and Britain. “I never get a virtuous or useful idea,” Rousseau wrote to his patron Malesherbes in 1765, “without seeing the gallows or the scaffold before me.” The remark may seem overly dramatic, even paranoid–and Rousseau very likely did suffer from clinical paranoia in his last years. But consider that in 1766, a 21-year-old nobleman named Jean-François de La Barre was publicly tortured, decapitated and burned in the northern French town of Abbeville for the “crime” of impiety–with the charge proved by nothing more than the fact that he owned a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary. The executioner threw the book onto the funeral pyre next to his victim’s head.

The books make clear that despite many surface parallels (the incest, the chronic afflictions, the persecution and exile, the aristocratic patrons), Voltaire and Rousseau were not just remarkable but remarkably different: the Janus faces of the Enlightenment. Voltaire, despite his reputation, became a radical against his own inclinations. Throughout much of his career he longed for nothing more than to ascend the established cultural heights of the Old Regime, particularly membership in the Académie Française and the post of Historiographer Royal (he succeeded in both). He ruled his Swiss domain like a lord of the manor and, in classic aristocratic fashion, treated his life as one long elegant, utterly assured theatrical display. He disdained the poor; and despite his stinging critiques of war, he made a fortune investing in military contracting. His hatred of established religion bled into a vicious anti-Semitism that went far beyond the Orientalism-tinged anticlericalism of his play Mahomet (itself mostly meant as a covert attack on the Catholic church, and understood as such at the time). He was insufferably vain. “It is not enough for him to be the hero of the century,” wrote his disciple La Harpe (in a passage quoted by Damrosch, not Pearson). “He wants to be the news of the day, for he knows that the news of the day often makes people forget the hero of the century.”

But in Jean-Jacques Rousseau the great critical glare of the Enlightenment, which Voltaire had fixed so scorchingly on prejudice and superstition and intolerance, was turned on itself. Critique became auto-critique, and crusade shifted into introspection. Not surprisingly, nearly all the early enemies of the Enlightenment ended up being influenced by Rousseau, often despite themselves: Romantic poets, embryonic socialists, even ultra-Catholic defenders of throne and altars (for did not the mountains at dawn proclaim the existence of God?). Even today, often without knowing it, the enemies of the Enlightenment echo him. The critique of Western civilization that Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit call “Occidentalism,” which they find shared by everyone from the Nazis to Al Qaeda, is to a great extent a perversion of Rousseauism. The notion of the Enlightenment as cold, mechanistic, materialistic, instrumental, overly rational, devoid of sentiment or sincerity or religious feeling: All this, we owe to him. The critique, sharp and stinging, has been there from the very start. Is it any wonder, then, that the Enlightenment has been such a fragile thing?


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