Friday, June 16, 2017

Zadig, the First Detective Story...and it was written by Voltaire

Voltaire's Zadig, the First Detective Story by Julian Hawthorne 1907

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Voltaire never heard of a "detective story"; and yet he wrote the first in modern literature, so clever as to be a model for all the others that followed.

He describes his hero Zadig thus: "His chief talent consisted in discovering the truth," — in making swift, yet marvelous deductions, worthy of Sherlock Holmes or any other of the ingenious modern "thinking machines."

But no one would be more surprised than Voltaire to behold the part that Zadig now "performs." The amusing Babylonian, now regarded as the aristocratic ancestor of modern story-detectives, was created as a chief mocker in a satire on eighteenth-century manners, morals, and metaphysics.

Voltaire breathed his dazzling brilliance into "Zadig" as he did into a hundred other characters — for a political purpose. Their veiled and bitter satire was to make Europe think—to sting reason into action—to ridicule out of existence a humbugging System of special privileges. It did, via the French Revolution and the resulting upheavals. His prose romances are the most perfect of Voltaire's manifold expressions to this end, which mark him the most powerful literary man of the century.

But the arch-wit of his age outdid his brilliant self in "Zadig." So surpassingly sharp and quick was this finished sleuth that his methods far outlived his satirical mission. His razor-mind was reincarnated a century later as the fascinator of nations — M. Dupin. And from Poe's wizard up to Sherlock Holmes, no one of the thousand "detectives," drawn in a myriad scenes that thrill the world of readers, but owes his outlines, at least, to "Zadig."

"Don't use your reason—act like your friends—respect conventionalities—otherwise the world will absolutely refuse to let you be happy." This sums up the theory of life that Zadig satires. His comical troubles proceed entirely from his use of independent reason as opposed to the customs of his times.

The satire fitted ancient Babylonia—it fitted eighteenth-century France—and perhaps the reader of these volumes can find some points of contact with his own surroundings.

It is still piquant, however, to remember Zadig's original raison d'etre. He happened to be cast in the part of what we now know as "a detective," merely because Voltaire had been reading stories in the "Arabian Nights" whose heroes get out of scrapes by marvelous deductions from simple signs.

Voltaire must have grinned at the delicious human interest, the subtle irony to pierce complacent humbugs, that lurked behind these Oriental situations. He made the most of his chance for a quaint parable, applicable to the courts, the church and science of Europe. As the story runs on, midst many and sudden adventures, the Babylonian reads causes from events in guileless fashion, enthusiastic as Sherlock Holmes, and no less efficient—and all the while, behind this innocent mask, Voltaire is insinuating a comparison between the practical results of Zadig's common sense and the futile mental cobwebs spun by the alleged thought of the time.

Especially did "Zadig" caricature orthodox science, and the metaphysicians, whose solemn searches after final causes, after the reality behind the appearance of things, mostly wandered into hopeless tangles, and thus formed a great weapon of political oppression, by postponing the age of reason and independent thought. Zadig "did not employ himself in calculating how many inches of water flow in a second of time under the arches of a bridge, or whether there fell a cube line of rain in the month of the Mouse more than in the month of the Sheep. He never dreamed of making silk of cobwebs, or porcelain of broken bottles; but he chiefly studied the properties of plants and animals; and soon acquired a sagacity that made him discover a thousand differences where other men see nothing but uniformity."

Zadig by Harry Thurston Peck 1908

The origin of the detective story is to be found in Voltaire's clever romance, “Zadig,” which he wrote under peculiar circumstances. He had fallen out of favor with the French court, because he had intimated that some of the members of the royal circle were guilty of cheating at cards. This brought upon him the keen displeasure of the queen. He feared lest at any moment he might be arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille. Within the hour, almost, he had his carriage prepared and hurried away at half past one in the morning. Arriving at a little wayside inn, he sent a letter to the Duchesse du Maine, begging her to hide him in her ch√Ęteau until he had been pardoned. For a month he lived in two rooms, which she provided for him, behind barred shutters, and with candles burning night and day.

There Voltaire wrote and wrote continually in his cramped hand, while his valet copied the sheets which his master kept tossing upon the floor with the ink still wet upon them. At two o'clock in the morning, Voltaire would go softly down to where the duchess was awaiting him, and eat a little supper in her presence, amusing her by his brilliant talk. Then he would creep back to his prison, and, after a brief interval of sleep, would once more fall to writing. It was under these strange circumstances that he composed the miniature masterpiece of romance which he called “Zadig.”

“Zadig,” of course, is not a detective story. It is an oriental tale, and its hero, Zadig, is a marvelous philosopher and acute observer. One passage in the story tells how he described to the Persian king's attendants a horse and a dog which had been lost, and which Zadig had never seen. Nevertheless, he was able by his powers of observation, and from certain indications, not only to describe the dog—its sex, size, and condition—but to tell correctly what sort of a bit was in the horse's mouth, and with what sort of shoes the animal had been shod. Here was the same kind of deductive reasoning which plays so great a part in the best detective stories of later days. Poe, who was steeped in French literature, must have derived from Voltaire the idea which he so brilliantly developed in his story, "The Purloined Letter." It is interesting to remember that the scene  of all three of Poe's most famous detective tales is laid in France.

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