Sunday, 6 March 2011

montagnarde1793: (rousseau)
Or maybe just his fanboys. Hard to tell sometimes, really. Voltaire has his points; he's witty, his contes are entertaining, he wrote some pretty good plays, he fought against the Church and the persecution of huguenots, etc. On the other hand, he was pretty chummy with various despots, he was a huge asshole to Rousseau, he was anti-Semitic, and one can declare with quasi-absolute certainty that he would have detested the Revolution.

I just saw a documentary ("Quand l'Europe parlait français") which was ostensibly about, well, what it it says: how everyone and his fourth cousin twice removed spoke French in the 18th century. Well, all the educated people anyhow. (Since everyone knows that peasants and artisans don't count.) Really though, it spent enough time talking about Voltaire to be a documentary about him. Needless to say if you've read the title of this post, I was disappointed with the treatment. Basically, for Marc Fumaroli (and considering he's part of the academic establishment, I suppose I really shouldn't be surprised), the Revolution is nothing but a Rousseauist degeneration into violence (no seriously, he blames revolutionary repression on that one line from the Contrat social about forcing people to be free - color me naïve, but I always interpreted that line as "individuals can't just break any law they disagree with because then society would fall apart", which for the record is contrary to the Revolutionary system of putting natural rights above positive laws, but I wouldn't expect someone who sets out this kind of nonsense to understand such subtleties). If only we had stayed with Voltaire's "moderate" position of sucking up to despotic governments and only (very selectively) attacking certain abuses around the edges! The world would be so much of a better place, wouldn't it? /sarcasm

Fortunately, we cut to another talking head to assure us that the Revolution was not, in fact, responsible for the death of French-as-universal-language - you know, just for the death of salon culture and the amazingness that is rococo, apparently - that dubious honor falls on the industrial revolution. Because as everyone knows, language ineluctibly follows commerce. Which is natural. And thus French is doomed. Unless we "individually" - because we can't openly advocate returning to "enlightened despotism", now can we? - bring back certain parts of the Ancien Régime - which even certain "jacobins" who hate the Ancien régime because they're "ideologues"** would be unable to disdain entirely. Again, apparently.

I mean, I guess all this proves is that you can't admire Voltaire unequivocally and still support the Revolution, which is a fairly obvious point - well, except to certain reactionary conspiracy theorists, but let's not go there, shall we? But it pisses me off anyway, because there's been a lot of celebration of how wonderful Voltaire was these past few years, and I can't help but feel that it's precisely not in spite of what I would consider to be his faults, but because of them*. He's the incarnation of the "good", "moderate" philosopher that those in power and their supporters both in the 18th century and now can feel comfortable around while patting themselves on the back for being so enlightened. (The irony is, the documentary points out this relationship between despotic courts and philosophers like Voltaire in the 18th century, but completely misses that the modern academic establishment is using the figure of Voltaire in much the same way.)

*To be fair, this is much less true of the anti-Semitism than of the helping of despotic regimes to keep up their image.
**I am so sick of seeing that word used as if it were the ultimate in sophisticated insults.

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