Friday, 19 April 2013

Wit is Everything

Thérèse philosophe is addressed to a Champagne-and-oyster readership – as were most of the works of the early Enlightenment.  Montesquieu cut up De l’Esprit des lois into tiny chapters laced with epigrams so they would suit salon society.  Voltaire made petits pâtés (anti-clerical tracts) comestible in the same way.  A great deal of what passed for philosophy before 1748 took the form of short pamphlets rather than formal treatises.  They remained confined, for the most part, to salons and princely courts, and they often circulated in manuscript.  The most important of them, Le Philosophe (1743), insisted that philosophy belonged in le monde, the world of high society as opposed to that of scholars and literary drudges.  It should be witty, well written, free of prejudice, and in good taste. Thérèse philosophe fits the formula perfectly.  Like Lettres persanes, Candide, and La Religieuse, it presented its philosophy as a story, sliced into bite-sized chapters and served with a sauce that would sit easily on the delicate stomachs of le monde.  (Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France)

We would expect the content to reflect the style.  The sophisticates of the Paris salons unlikely to accept as serious a message that hard work and no talk is the solution to life’s problems.  No talk?   The salons would cease to exist!   Of course they would see the joke, and share it, but it is unlikely they would take it as anything more than a light metaphor; Candide believed to be too naïve to be credible.  Not like the sophisticated author who guides his hero's actions with a permanent wink.  Irony indispensable in such circles…

Circles where “scholars and literary drudges” are compared to ignorant farmers whose intellectual horizons are bounded by the fences of their own small fields…?

It is here in the Paris salons that we must seek the purport of the book’s last chapter; its meaning reflected in the lifestyle and expectations of its readership.  Candide is too banal a character to be accepted as a role model in such high society; and although Voltaire was certainly poking fun at his friends and associates, the reason perhaps for the fake translator (a reference to the practice of pretending that anti-clerical tracts were written in a foreign language – the salon is Candide’s Catholic Church), he couldn’t risk alienating them or making himself look ridiculous – the danger of anyone who preaches in a room full of wits.  By forcing his hero to be so extreme, at the end he is not much more than a mindless farmer, he domesticates the book for this aristocratic culture. 

Candide a light-hearted warning of what might ensue if philosophical talk floats too far off the ground.  The balloon of speculation, it insists, must be tethered to the earth.  And academics from Germany should stay at home and make up words that no one else understands....  Only the English and the Scots are welcome here!  All of this would raise a laugh.  And everyone would see the point.  And for a short while they might even talk soberly; although they would giggle over the gullibility of a hero who believes a Turkish farmer when he says that his salvation can be found in a ploughed field.   What fun!  They would shout.  Only a German could have written it!

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