Saturday, June 14, 2008

Humanist blogging à la Voltaire!

Me: So, today I have to write my essay about Voltaire.
My Sweetie: Poor Voltaire.
Me: Ah, you feel sorry for Voltaire and not for me...?
My Sweetie: Well, everyone is going to say he wrote a very bad book, and it's probably true...

My husband objected to the Nonbelieving Literati's selection of Zadig as soon as I told him about it.


Because -- said he -- the context and influence are what's interesting, not the text itself. Reading Voltaire today is like people three centuries from now reading a popular columnist from this year's New York Times. High School kids in France study Zadig in the context of a few semesters' worth of study about its time period and influence.

(He then went on to suggest that the Nonbelieving Literati should be reading Joyce and Melville. That was where I parted ways with my hopelessly highbrow-lit husband. If there's a list of authors I'm not reading for any damned book club, #1 would be Joyce and #2 would be Melville.)

But I agreed with my husband about Voltaire's place in history firing the imagination. A few months ago, I read a couple of fantastic books by Robert Darnton about the culture and literature of the time:

The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France.

Working from an amazing array of primary sources, Darnton explores the culture and attitudes of all the different segments of the population of enlightenment France, from illiterate peasants to artisans to the "bourgeois" to the nobility. A newly-abundant information technology -- printed books -- was spreading new ideas far and wide. Books that the church or the state found threatening were at once illegal and quite popular. Voltaire was one of the usual suspects. Illegal books (as a category) were called "philosophical" by the publishing industry (as well as by the authorities) even though this genre included books about politics (especially the king's personal life) and smut/erotica in addition to books on more obviously philosophical subjects like deism and atheism.

Naturally I see a parallel with the Internet today. It may just be that I see blogging everywhere (being obsessed with it and all), but please hear me out.

Printed books are a form of one-way communication -- like television -- from knowledge producers to knowledge consumers. There's one big difference, however: less is more. The less your infotainment consumes of your brain's attention, the more your brain has to work on its own in response. Caleb Crain argues this in The Twilight of Reading: "It makes you smarter because it leaves more of your brain alone." Darnton's research illustrates this in his chapter analyzing police records of (spying on) nightly conversations taking place in taverns around town. Unlike television today which can consume all of your brain's leisure time without your brain ever having the strain of producing a single thought of its own, in those days you could only read books for so long, and then the next natural step is to go down to the pub and discuss them.

And so with the Internet today. We're bringing back not only written communication but also a two-way flow of ideas (as I explained in Think for yourself!). Blog and forum space form a beautiful silicon web of conversation. The division between idea producers and idea consumers is blurred to the point of being completely erased. No one article or post is ever the final word on any subject -- the most interesting ones get linked into a network of hundreds and thousands of related but contrasting perspectives.

Are we ushering in a new "enlightenment" in the tradition of Voltaire et al? Perhaps. Hopefully it will be one that doesn't end quite so badly...

p.s. I really did read Zadig (in French, no less -- be impressed! ;^) ), and I'll add my thoughts on the text itself in my comments on the posts of my fellow Nonbelieving Literati.


The Exterminator said...

This is a great essay, C.L. Better than Joyce or Melville would have done. (Well, shorter anyway.)

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Exterminator!!!

I was sure you were going to come by and exterminate me for that remark since you hate it when people ignorantly refuse to read great works. But as far as Joyce is concerned, I reached this opinion by reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which is the one that's supposed to be relatively accessible...), and as for Mellville, I'm mostly kidding about refusing to read his work if asked to do so. I can't promise in advance that I'd be willing to read Billy Budd all the way to the end, though...

The Exterminator said...

Well, as far as Melville goes, I've had that whale book on my list of must-reads for almost my entire life. I once got through nearly 150 pages before being overcome by the sea-salt smell. So I remain Moby-Dickless to this day. Perhaps sometime in the future, after I've re-reread all of Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Twain ... Chandler, Nabakov, Roth, Calvino, Barnes ... the list could go on and on of authors I'd rather visit again and again than sail out into that thick Melville fog.

C. L. Hanson said...

lol, well, I guess his style isn't for everybody...

BTW, you may have noticed that my atheist husband -- who refuses to participate in the atheosphere -- is (tangentially) participating in the Nonbelieving Literati discussions. Our earlier discussion inspired him to read La Peste, which he'd never read before...

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Add me to the M. Dickless list.

I liked this essay, C.L. I like that you're interested in looking behind the story, to as Paul Harvey says, "the rest of the story". And I like your observations about the next, natural step in reading a book: discussing it.

But how many times do you find yourself listening to co-workers discuss what they saw on TV last night, and cringe?

The Ridger, FCD said...

I'll have to look into those books myself.

In a large part your husband's right: reading the revolutionary works of someone from a while back can be a letdown, because, well, their ideas aren't all that revolutionary any more - either they're accepted or they're wacko.

ps - I too hate Joyce. Melville is okay, though Moby-Dick has waaaaaay more about whaling than it really needs to.

Aerin said...

Bravo to you for reading it. Also, for reading in French... my reading comprehension in Russian was very low. I had a hard time with Russian children's give you an idea of my fleuncy.

Portrait of the Artist is accessible, and actually recommended (by me) as a novel about leaving a religion. It is also well written. Ulysses has been on my list for awhile. As soon as I finish Gravity's Rainbow I suppose.

Anonymous said...

Having finally just picked up my copy of Zadig yesterday, I will read it sometime, probably within the next few months. Thanks for your recommendations of books that will help establish the context for me. Of course, now I have to buy two more books and read a total of three of them just to finish reading the first one!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey S.I.!!!

Fortunately I haven't had much of that experience. I don't know why. I guess my colleagues don't discuss television much. Are yours really into American Idol or something?

Hey Ridger!!!

Re: reading the revolutionary works of someone from a while back can be a letdown, because, well, their ideas aren't all that revolutionary any more - either they're accepted or they're wacko.

That is so true!!!

It also applies to ideas that are merely original (if not revolutionary). One example of that is the scene in Zadig where Zadig looks at the evidence and figures out that a horse has gone by. I kept thinking that perhaps Sherlock Holmes was partially inspired by that. I'm clearly not the only one to have made the connection since the appendix at the back of my copy of Zadig pointed out that the opening sequence of The Name of the Rose closely copies the horse sequence from Zadig. And we can guess that Umberto Eco was also thinking of Sherlock Holmes since he named his main character "William of Baskerville."

Another example is L'an 2440, which was another forbidden book from Voltaire's time. The text itself is actually kind of ridiculous, rambling, and dull (which is why this work itself has been mostly forgotten), but the idea of a person from one time period falling asleep and waking up to another epoch has stayed with us because it captures the imagination. The book was a huge best-seller at the time, and was probably one of the earliest "time travel" stories, if not the very first one.

p.s. I was joking about the "too much whaling in Moby Dick" point in the comments of this post.

Hey Aerin!!!

Well, it makes sense that there must be some value in Joyce's work. A lot of people like it.

Hey Chaplain!!!

True, that makes a lot of books, but I very strongly recommend the two Darnton books I wrote about here. They are the two most fascinating non-fiction books I've read in some time, and in fact they're among the only non-fiction works I've ever re-read just for pleasure. (They were books we'd bought and read way back when we were living in Princeton eight or nine years ago.) They're full of unexpected points and highly enjoyable, especially for lit types with an anthropological bent.

I actually suggested one of these two books to The Exterminator as a choice for "Nonbelieving Literati", but he vetoed it because a book about literature is not the same thing as literature. Even if it's full of lengthy excerpts. But I'm so sneaky, I managed to slip in an essay about this book for Nonbelieving Literati anyway! Hahahaha!!! ;^)

Unknown said...

Very nice essay. I tried to keep in mind that the book was written for a different audience and a different time when I was reading it, but it hit on my pet peeves a few too many times.

Still, I didn't find it a difficult or uninteresting read. Your essay helps to provide some additional context.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ordinary Girl!!!

I think this definitely more interesting in context.