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Voltaire Empty Voltaire

Post  eddie Wed Nov 16, 2011 6:46 pm

A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire – review

Voltaire's dictionary is still has the power to make you gasp at its audacity

Nicholas Lezard, Tuesday 15 November 2011 09.00 GMT

Voltaire A-Pocket-Philosophical-Dicti
A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary
by Voltaire, translated by John Fletcher

In three years it will be the 250th anniversary of the publication of this incendiary work. I hope suitable festivities are being planned. I cannot think of any political work this old which survives modern scrutiny so well – not so much because it contains essential truths, but because it is still such fun to read. Dangerous fun, that is: it's like being in the presence of a particularly enraged alternative comedian, an Enlightenment Bill Hicks, perhaps.
Readers opening the first edition and reading the first entry – on Abraham – would have raised an eyebrow at this: "The fact is that the seed of Ishmael has been infinitely more favoured by God than the seed of Jacob. Both races have in turn produced thieves; but the Arab thieves have been prodigiously superior to the Jewish thieves." Any reader consoling him- or herself at the time with the thought that this is just antisemitism of a particularly broad kind is not reading properly: this is a declaration, as it were, that nothing in the following pages is going to be treated as sacred. Everything is about to get a good kicking, and irony will be piled upon irony.

Voltaire was pushing 70 when he wrote it, but he wasn't getting soft in his old age. Rather the contrary. He felt not only that time was running out, but that he could really let rip without too much fear of the consequences. Not that he was completely reckless: for as long as possible, he maintained the fiction that he was not the work's author. And with good reason: the book was instantly placed on the Vatican's list of banned books, where it remained until the list itself was withdrawn in 1966; and in 1776, two years after publication, a young man from Picardy, the chevalier de La Barre, was accused of various anti-religious acts, and his possession of Voltaire's Dictionary was a factor in his guilty sentence. Punishment: to have his tongue torn out, be beheaded, and burned at the stake, with a copy of the offensive book tossed on to the pyre for good measure (pour encourager les autres, you might say).

And after all this time the book still has the power to make you gasp at its audacity. This is helped by a translation which is faithful to the original – I've checked this, for once – not only in literal terms but in those of tone. I've seen earlier translations which don't manage to convey the snap and vigour of Voltaire's French. Sometimes John Fletcher goes a little far – he comments on Ezekiel being commanded by the Lord "to eat barley, wheat and millet bread covered with shit" where the original has "excréments humains" (and the KJV has, for what it's worth, "dung that cometh out of man"). Then again, in English Ezekiel just says "Ugh!" whereas Voltaire has him say the rather more expressive "Pouah! Pouah! Pouah!"

But the spirit of Voltaire is so well preserved and respected that I'm not going to complain. One of the reasons I checked against the original was because I thought: hang on, has this been gussied up to attract a modern audience? It hasn't. And it's one good reason why this book is still the first one you need on your shelves if you want to be part of the Dawkins/Dennett anti-religious crusade. (In fact, this book pre-emptively renders those works unnecessary. Not Hitchens's, though, because it's so well-written, and so could be said to be more Voltairean than the others'.) His routine is basically to point out, under almost randomly generated headings, stupidities and inconsistencies in the Bible, or in examples of religious intolerance, or of cruel and bone-headed dogmatism.

And behind it all is a marvellously Swiftian look at the bleakness of existence. In the essay with the marvellous title "All Is Good" he cites a Syrian creation myth which tells how the primal couple, dwelling in Paradise, decide to eat cake instead of ambrosia and, suddenly needing to "go to the stool" (this is an earthy book) are directed by an angel to a tiny planet which is "the privy for the entire universe". "They went there and never came back," writes Voltaire, "and since then the world has been the way it is."
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