Voltaire, 1694--1778

30 Nov 1996 05:57

Perfectly happy now, he looked at his estate.
An exile making watches glanced up as he passed
And went on working; where a hospital was rising fast,
A joiner touched his cap; an agent came to tell
Some of the trees he'd planted were progressing well.
The white alps glittered. It was summer. He was very great.

Far off in Paris where his enemies
Whsipered that he was wicked, in an upright chair
A blind old woman longed for death and letters. He would write,
"Nothing is better than life." But was it? Yes, the fight
Against the false and the unfair
Was always worth it. So was gardening. Civilize.

Cajoling, scolding, screaming, cleverest of them all,
He'd had the other children in a holy war
Against the infamous grown-ups; and, like a child, been sly
And humble, when there was occassion for
The two-faced answer or the plain protective lie,
But, patient like a peasant, waited for their fall.

And never doubted, like D'Alembert, he would win:
Only Pascal was a great enemy, the rest
Were rats already poisoned; there was much, though, to be done,
And only himself to count upon.
Dear Diderot was dull but did his best;
Rousseau, he'd always known, would blubber and give in.

Night fell and made him think of women: Lust
Was one of the great teachers; Pascal was a fool.
How Emilie had loved astronomy and bed;
Pimpette had loved him too, like scandal; he was glad.
He'd done his share of weeping for Jerusalem: As a rule,
It was the pleasure-haters who became unjust.

Yet, like a sentinel, he could not sleep. The night was full of wrong,
Earthquakes and executions: soon he would be dead,
And still all over Europe stood the horrible nurses
Itching to boil their children. Only his verses
Perhaps could stop them: He must go on working: Overhead,
The uncomplaining stars composed their lucid song.

---W. H. Auden, "Voltaire at Ferney"

Né François-Marie Arouet, in Paris, son of a (possibly cuckolded) bourgeois lawyer; died simply Voltaire, in Paris, after a triumphal entry, lord of Ferney, something like an independent Power in Europe, and (two centuries of preachers to the contrary notwithstandig) an infidel. Imprisoned in the Bastille (he and an exceedingly minor nobleman named Rohan had a failing-out over a woman; Rohan had him beaten up while he watched from his coach; Voltaire challenged Rohan to a duel; and such impudence could not go unpunished); exiled to England; banned from France any number of times; run out of Prussia; run out of Geneva; author of hardly one un-proscribed book. He was greedy and unscrupulous, he lied with perfect composure and at almost any provocation, he poured vituperation on anyone who crossed him and a good many others, he carried on an affair with his niece Mme. Denis for years (she was a widow and had him wrapped around her little finger). He came into a Europe which had still not completely broken the habit of burning old women as witches, where you could be tortured to death for owning a small book which suggested Abraham was a legendary figure, or for being Protestant in a Catholic town, or vice-versa, where truly arbitrary power (think of Rohan) depended entirely on birth. That all these things were passed or passing in the Europe he died in was in no small measure due to his efforts and genius. Those of us who, today, can read what we like, worship what we like (if anything), and even insult rich people we pass in the street, are all his beneficiaries. (There are still far too many places where you can't do these things; he would be angry but not surprised.) We on the Net, in particular, are in his debt, which seems fitting, because he would have loved it no end, particularly flame-wars and anonymous re-mailers.

Écrasez l'infâme!

See also: the Enlightenment; Nietzsche; Russell