Tuesday, October 11, 2016
A Wry Assessment of Voltaire by John Cowper Powys 1916
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The immense bulk of Voltaire's writings is profoundly uninteresting to me. I once saw—I think it must have been in Liverpool—a wonderful edition of his complete works published during the Revolution and with a duplicate copy of every illustrative print. I couldn't afford the price of the thing just then, amazingly low though it was, but in my devotion to that great name, I swore that, when I made my library, that noble edition should be in it.
I have never made any library and never intend to. The sight of classical authors in row upon row depresses me beyond words. Public Libraries are still worse. I have no wish to be helped "to get on in the world" by Mr. Carnegie. I resent the association between literature and "public benefactions." Does he propose to dole out the exquisite taste necessary to appreciate these rare things, on condition that our "home town" pay half the cost? Thank Heaven, a feeling for what is noble and distinguished in human thought is beyond the reach of any philanthropist. I mean beyond his power of giving or taking away, and I do not believe that those among the poor who really have this feeling are often found in libraries. They probably have their "Oxford Book of English Verse"—a gift from their gentlest acquaintance—just as I have; and, for the rest, they can sell their school prizes to buy Hardy and Henry James.
Except for "Candide" and a few excerpts from the "Philosophical Dictionary," I must confess I have no wish to turn over another page of Voltaire. It is simply incredible to me that human beings possessed of the same senses as ours could find satisfaction for their imagination in the sterile moralising, stilted sentiment, superficial wit, and tiresome persiflage of that queer generation. I suppose they didn't really. I suppose they used to go off on the sly, and read Rabelais and Villon. I suppose it was only the preposterous "social world" of those days who enjoyed nothing in literature except pseudo-classic attitudes and gestures; just as it is only the preposterous "social world" with us who enjoy nothing but Gaelic mythology and Oriental Mysticism.
Those pseudo-classic writers of the eighteenth century, in England and France, have their admirers still. I confess such admiration excites in me as much wonder as the works themselves excite distaste. What can they find in them that is thrilling or exciting or large or luminous or magical? I would pile up the whole lot of them along with those books that are no books—biblia-a-biblia—of which Charles Lamb speaks so plaintively. Backgammon boards with lettering behind them should be their companions.
What a relief to turn from contemplation of the works of Voltaire to that bust of him by Houdon!
Ah! there we have him, there we apprehend him, there we catch his undying spirit! And what a man he was! As one looks at that face wherein a mockery more trenchant than the world is able to endure leers and wags the tongue, one feels certain that the soul of the eighteenth century was not really contented with its heroic sentimental mask. The look upon that face, with its aristocratic refinement, its deadly intellect, its beautiful cynicism, is worth all the sessions of the Academy and all the seasons of the Salons. It makes one think somehow of the gardens of Versailles. One seems to see it as a mocking fragment of heathen marble—some Priapian deity of shameless irreverence, peering forth in the moonlight from among the yew hedges and the fountains; watching the Pierrot of the Minute make love to Columbine, and the generations of men drift by like falling leaves.
Voltaire!—He was well advised to choose that name for himself; a name which sounds even now like the call of a trumpet. And a call it is; a call to the clear intelligences and the unclouded brains; a call to the generous hearts and the unperverted instincts; a call to sanity and sweetness and clarity and noble commonsense; to all that is free and brave and gay and friendly, to rally to the standard of true civilisation against the forces of stupidity, brutality and obscurantism!
Voltaire was one of those great men whose thoughts are armies and whose words are victories in the cause of the liberation of humanity. If we do not read his books, we look at his image and we read his life. We name his name and we seal ourselves of his tribe; the name and tribe of such as refuse to bow their knees to Baal, and if they worship in the house of Rimmon, worship with a large reservation!
Voltaire is much more than a man of letters. He is a prophet of the age to come, when the execrable superstitions of narrow minds shall no longer darken the sunlight, and the infamous compulsion of human manners, human intellects, human tastes, into the petty mould of oppressive public opinion shall be ended forever.
That bust in the Louvre and the sublime story of his life will outlast all but one of those half a hundred volumes of his which Mr. Carnegie's liberality has put at the disposal of our "home town."
We too, like the populace of Paris, on the day when he came back to his own, flock out to see the "saviour of the Calas." We too, like the passionate actresses who crowned his image in the great comedy-house while—as they say—he bowed his head so low that his forehead touched the front of his box, acclaim him still as the Messiah of the Liberty of the human intellect.
How admirable it is to come back to the spirit and temper of Voltaire from the fussy self-love and neurotic introspections of our modern egoists. The new fashionable doctrine among the "intellectuals" is that one is to live in one's ivory tower and let the world go; live in one's ivory tower while brutal and detestable people tyrannise over the gentle and sensitive; live in one's ivory tower while the heavy hand of popular ignorance lies like a dead weight upon all that is fine and rare; live in one's ivory tower while complacent well-paid optimism whispers acquiescence in the "best of all possible worlds."
The great Voltaire was made in another mould. Few enjoyed the pleasures of life more than he; but the idea of the stupid brutality and ignorant tyranny from which in this world so many harmless people suffer filled him with fury. The Calas were only one—only the best known—of a long list of victims on whose behalf he entered the arena. In these campaigns of justice, he was tireless, inexhaustible, insatiable. He flooded Europe with pamphlets on behalf of his protégés. He defied Church and State in his crusades to defend them. His house at Ferney became a sort of universal refuge and sanctuary for the persecuted persons of the civilised world.
A great and good man! I sometimes think that of all the heroic champions of sensitiveness against insensitiveness, of weakness against strength, of the individual against public opinion, I would soonest call up the noble shade of Voltaire and kiss his pontifical hand!
The Pantheistic Carlyle grumbles at his levity and rails against his persiflage. One hopes there will always be a "persiflage" like that of Voltaire to clear the human stage of stupid tyranny and drive the mud-monsters of obscurantism back into their mid-night caverns. He was a queer kind of Apollo—this little great man with his old-fashioned wig and the fur-cloak "given him by Catherine of Russia"—but the flame which inspired him was the authentic fire, and the arrows with which he fought were dipped in the golden light of the sun.
I said there was one book of Voltaire's to which the souls of honest people who love literature must constantly return. This, of course, is "Candide"; a work worthy to be bound up in royal vellum and stained in Tyrian dyes. If it were not for "Candide"—so stiff and stilted was the fashionable spirit of that age—there would be little in Voltaire's huge shelf of volumes, little except stray flashes of his irrepressible gaiety, to arrest and to hold us. But into the pages of "Candide" he poured the full bright torrent of his immortal wit, and with this book in our hands we can feel him and savour him as he was.
One has only to glance over the face of Europe at this present hour to get the sting and Pythian poison of this planetary irony. It is like a Circean philtre of sweet sunbrewed wine, sparkling with rainbow bubbles and gleaming with the mockery of the deathless gods. Once for all in this scandalous and beautiful book, the lying optimism of the preachers receives its crushing blow. "Candide" is the final retort of all sane and generous spirits, full of magnanimity and laughter, to that morbid and shameful propitiation of the destinies which cries "peace when there is no peace."
One feels when one reads it as if it were written by some wanton and gracious youth, in the marble courts of some happy palace of Utopia, commenting upon the mad delusions and diseased hypocrisies of the men of the old time when superstition still reigned. No book in the world has more spontaneous gaiety, more of the triumphant spirit of human boyishness in its blood. Certainly the great Voltaire was to the end of his life—and you can see that very thing in the old-young face of the famous bust—inspired by the immortal flame of youth. He never grew old. To the last his attitude toward life was the attitude of that exuberant and unbounded energy which takes nothing seriously and loves the contest with darkness and stupidity for the sake of the divine "sport" of the struggle. There is a certain sun-born sanity of commonsense about such natural youthfulness, which contradicts all popular fallacies.
It is the Mercutio spirit, striking up the swords of both Montagues and Capulets and fooling them all on their grey-haired obsessions. It comes into this solemn custom-ridden world, as if from some younger and gayer star, and makes wanton sport of its pious hypocrisies. It opens its astonished laughing eyes upon the meanness of men and the cruelties of men and the insane superstitions and illusions of men, and it mocks them all with mischievous delight. It refuses to bow its head before hoary idols. It refuses to go weeping and penitent and stricken with a sense of "sin" in the presence of natural fleshly instincts. It is absolutely irresponsible—what, in a world like this, should one be responsible for?—and it is shamelessly frivolous. Why not? Where the highest sanctities are so lamentably human, and where the phylacteries of the moralists are embroidered with such earth-spun threads, why go on tip-toe and with forlorn visage? It is outrageously indecent. Why not? Who made this portentous "decency" to be the rule of free-born life? Who put fig-leaves upon the sweet flesh of the immortals? Decency after all is a mere modern barbarism; the evocation of morbid vulgarity and a perverted heart.
The great classic civilisations included a poetic obscenity with easy nonchalance. They had a god to protect its interests, and its sun-burnt youthful wantonness penetrates all their art. This modern cult of "decency"—thrust down the throat of human joy by a set of Calvins and John Knoxes—is only one of the indications in our wretched commercialised age of how far we have sunk from the laughter of the gods and the dancing of the morning stars.
To sit listening in the forlorn streets of a Puritan city—when for one day the cheating tradesmen leave their barbarous shops—to the wailing of unlovely hymns, empty of everything except a degraded sentimentality that would make an Athenian or a Roman slave blush with shame, is enough to cause one to regard the most scandalous levity of Voltaire as something positively sacred and holy.
One wonders that scholars are any longer allowed even to read Aristophanes—far less translate him. And cannot they see—these perverts of a purity that insults the sunshine—that humour, decent or indecent, is precisely the thing that puts sex properly in its place? Cannot they see that by substituting morbid sentiment for honest Rabelaisianism they are obsessing the minds of every one with a matter which after all is only one aspect of life?
The great terrible Aphrodite—ruler of gods and men—is not to be banished by conventicle or council. She will find her way back, though she has to tread strange paths, and the punishment for the elimination of natural wantonness is the appearance of hideous hypocrisy. Driven from the haunts of the Muses, expelled from the symposia of the wise and witty, the spirit of sexual irreverence takes refuge in the streets; and the scurrilous vulgarities of the tavern balance the mincing proprieties of the book-shop.
After all sex is a laughable thing. The tragedies connected with it, the high and thrilling pleasures connected with it, do not obliterate its original absurdity. And Voltaire—this sane sun-born child of the shameless intellect—never permits us for a moment to forget how ridiculous in the last resort all this fuss about the matter is.
Puritanical suppression and neurotic obsession are found invariably together. It is precisely in this way that the great goddess revenges herself upon those who disobey her laws. Voltaire, the least Puritanical of men, is also the least neurotic. The Satyrish laughter of his eternally youthful energy clears the air of the world.
Humour of all human things is the most transitory and changing in its moods. As a perambulating interpreter of literature, ancient as well as modern, this has especially been borne in upon me. I have been guilty, in that sickening academic way which makes one howl with shame in one's self-respecting moments, of "trying out" upon people the old stock humours of the standard authors.
I have dragged poor Bottom back to life and made the arms of the Cervantian wind-mill turn and the frogs of Aristophanes croak. But oh, shade of Yorick! how the sap, the ichor, the sharp authentic tang, that really tickles our sensibilities, has thinned out and fallen flat during the centuries. My hearers have smiled and tittered perhaps—with a pathetic wish to be kind, or a desire to show themselves not quite dull to these classic amenities—and between us we have, in a kind of chuckling pedantry, shuffled through the occasion; but it is not pleasant to recall such moments.
Of course a sly comedian could make anything amusing; but one cannot help feeling that if the humour of these famous scenes were really permanent it would force its way even through the frosty air of academic culture into our human nerves.
"We are not wood; we are not stones, but men"—and being men the essential spirit of outrageous humour ought surely to hit us, however poorly interpreted. And it does; only the proprieties and the decencies sheer us off from what is permanently appealing!
I recollect on one occasion, how, after making my hearers cry over the natural and permanent tragedy of Shylock, I asked the fatuous question, addressing it, as one does, to the vague air—
"What are we to say about Launcelot Gobbo?"
Now obviously any one but a professional interpreter of literature would know that there's nothing to say about this harmless fool. Shakespeare threw him in as "a comic relief" and probably felt his strongest appeal to the native genius of the actor who impersonated him. But I can recall now, with that sense of humiliation which wrings one's withers, the sweetly murmured tones of some tactful woman who answered—and the last thing one wants is an answer to these inanities—
"Oh, we must say that Launcelot Gobbo is charming!"
But Gobbo or no Gobbo, the fact remains that humour is one of the most delicate, the most evasive, and the most unstable of human qualities. I am myself inclined to hold that sheer outrageous ribaldry, especially if graced with an undertone of philosophic irony, is the only kind of humour which is really permanent. To give permanence to any human quality in literature, there must be an appeal to something which is beyond the power of time and change and fashion and custom and circumstance. And, as a matter of fact, nothing in the world except sex itself answers this requirement.
The absurdities of men are infinite, but they alter with every generation. What never alters or can alter, is the absurdity of being a man at all.
Where Shakespeare's humour still touches us most nearly is precisely in those scenes which the superficial custom of our age finds least endurable. It is not in his Gobbos or in his frolicsome boy-girls, that his essential spirit must be looked for; but in his Falstaffs and Mercutios.
But Shakespeare's humour is largely, after all, a lovely, dreamy, poetical thing. I doubt if it has the weight or the massive solidity of the humour of Rabelais. I think the humour of Charles Lamb wears well; but that is probably because it has a most indisputable flavour of Rabelaisian roguery underlying its whimsical grace. Anatole France has the true classic spirit. His humour will remain fresh forever, because it is the humour of the eternal absurdity of sexual desire. Heine can never lose the sharpness of his bite, for his irreverence is the eternal irreverence of the soul that neither man nor God can scourge into solemn submission.
Humour to be really permanent and to outlast the changes of fashion must go plummet-like to the basic root of things. It is nothing less than extraordinary that Voltaire, living in the age of all ages the most obsessed with the modishness of the hour, should have written "Candide," a book full of the old unalterable laughter. For "Candide" is not only a clever book, a witty book, a wise book. It is a book preposterously and outrageously funny. It tickles one's liver and one's gall; it relaxes one's nerves; it vents the suppressed spleen of years in a shout of irrepressible amusement. Certain passages in it—and, as one would have suspected they are precisely the passages that cannot be quoted in a modern book—compel one to laugh aloud as one thinks of them.
Personally I hold the opinion that "Candide" is the most humorous piece of human writing in the world. And yet its ribaldry, its irreverence, is unbounded. It sticks at nothing. It says everything. It wags the philosophic tongue at every conceivable embodiment of popular superstition.
If the best books are the books which the authors of them have most enjoyed writing, the books that have the thrill of excellent pleasure on every page, then "Candide" certainly bears away the palm. One would like to have watched Voltaire's countenance as he wrote it. The man's superb audacity, his courage, his aplomb, his god-like shamelessness, appear in every sentence.
What an indictment of the human race! What an arraignment of the "insolence of office"! What a tract for the philanthropists! What a slap in the face for the philosophers! And all done with such imperturbable good temper, such magnanimity of fine malice.
Poor Candide! how loyally he struggled on, with Pangloss as his master and his ideal; and what shocks he experienced! I would sooner go down to posterity as the author of "Candide" than of any volume in the world except Goethe's "Faust."
There is something extraordinarily reassuring about the book. It reconciles one to life even at the moment it is piling up life's extravagant miseries. Its buoyant and resilient energy, full of the unconquerable irreverence and glorious shamelessness of youth, takes life fairly by the throat and mocks it and defies it to its face. It indicates courageous gaiety as the only victory, and ironical submission to what even gaiety cannot alter as the only wisdom.
There are few among us, I suppose, who in going to and fro in the world, have not come upon some much-persecuted, much-battered Candide, "cultivating his garden" after a thousand disillusions; and holding fast, in spite of all, to the doctrines of some amazing Pangloss. Such encounters with such invincible derelicts must put us most wholesomely to shame. Our neurotic peevishness, our imaginary grievances, our vanity and our pride, are shown up at such moments in their true light.
If complacent optimism appears an insolent falsifying of life's facts, a helpless pessimism appears a cowardly surrender to life's impertinence. Neither to gloss over the outrageous reality nor to lose our resistant obstinacy, whatever such reality may do to us, is the last word of noble commonsense. And it is a noble commonsense which, after all, is Voltaire's preeminent gift.
The Voltairian spirit refuses to be fooled by man or god. The universe may batter it and bruise it, but it cannot break it. The brutality of authority, the brutality of public opinion, may crush it to the earth; but from the earth it mocks still, mocks and mocks and mocks, with the eternal youthfulness of its wicked tongue!
Voltaire took the world as he found it. With the weapons of the world he fought the world; with the weapons of the world he overcame the world. The neurotic modern vulgarity which, misinterpreting the doctrines of Nietzsche, worships force and bows down in the dust before the great unscrupulous man, finds no support in Voltaire. Honest people, cultivating their gardens and keeping the prophets away from their backyards, find in the Voltairian spirit their perpetual refuge.
The old Horatian wisdom, clear-eyed, cynical and friendly, leaps up once again from the dust of the centuries, a clean bright flame, and brings joyousness and sanity back to the earth.
Voltaire could be kind and generous without calling to his aid the "immensities" and the "eternities." He could strike fiercely on behalf of the weak and the oppressed without darkening the sunshine by any worship of "sorrow." He could be thoroughly and most entirely "good," while spitting forth his ribald irreverences against every pious dogma. He could be long-suffering and considerate and patient, to a degree hardly ever known among men of genius, while ruling Europe with his indomitable pen.
The name of Voltaire is more than a trumpet call of liberty for the oppressed artists and thinkers of the world; it is a challenge to the individual Candides of our harassed generation to rise above their own weaknesses and introspections and come forth into the sunshine.
The name of Voltaire is a living indictment of the madness of politicians and the insanity of parties and sects. It brings us back to the commonsense of honest men, who "care for none of these things."
He was a queer Apollo of light and reason—this lean bewigged figure with cane and snuffbox and laced sleeves—but the powers of darkness fled from before his wit as they have not fled from before the wit of any other; for the wit of Voltaire is in harmony with the spirit of the human race, as it shakes itself free from superstition "and all uncharitableness."
He was a materialist if you will, for his "deism" meant no more to him than a distant blue sky giving the world space and perspective and free air; but a materialism that renders men kind and courteous, urbane and sweet-tempered, honest and clear-headed, is better than a spirituality that leads to intolerance and madness.
He was a ribald and a scoffer in the presence of much that the world holds sacred; but the most sacred thing of all—the sanity of human reason—has never been more splendidly defended.
He mocked at the traditions of men; but he remains a champion of man's highest prerogative. He turned the churches into indecent ridicule; but wherever an honest man strikes at tyrannous superstition, or a solitary "cultivator of his garden" strikes at stupid mob-rule, one stone the more is added to that great "ecclesia" of civilisation, which "Deo erexit Voltaire"; which Voltaire built—and builds—to God.
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