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Voltaire, l’esprit, and irony

By John Fletcher


In 1744 Voltaire produced for an edition of Mérope a “Lettre sur l’esprit”, which he later incorporated after corrections in later editions of the Dictionnaire philosophique under the article “Esprit.” In it he attempted to define the nature of wit in the following terms:

Ce qu’on appelle esprit est tantôt une comparaison nouvelle, tantôt une allusion fine: ici l’abus d’un mot qu’on présente dans un sens, et qu’on laisse entendre dans un autre; là un rapport délicat entre deux idées peu communes; c’est une métaphore singulière; c’est une recherche de ce qu’un objet ne présente pas d’abord, mais de ce qui est en effet dans lui; c’est l’art ou de réunir deux choses éloignées, ou de diviser deux choses qui paraissent se joindre, ou de les opposer 1’une à 1’autre; c’est celui de ne dire qu’à moitié sa pensée pour la laisser deviner.

(What we call “wit” is either a fresh analogy, or a delicate allusion: sometimes it’s the use of a word which is presented as having one meaning, but which the reader is invited to understand in another; sometimes it’s the subtle linking of two ideas which have little in common; it can be an unusual metaphor; it’s the quest for something which an object does not at first reveal but which is intrinsic to it; it’s the art of bringing together two separate things, or of dividing them where they appear linked, or of setting one against the other ; it’s a way of revealing only half of one’s thinking in order to let the reader guess the rest.)

What Voltaire here refers to as the art of presenting a word in one sense, while allowing it to be understood in another; of establishing a connection between ideas which at first sight have little in common; of bringing out unremarked relevance; of linking different notions and separating analogous concepts; of implying more than is explicitly stated: this, surely, is not simply a definition of wit in general, but of irony in particular. When Voltaire said “esprit,” he meant exactly what we now understand by the term “irony.”

Voltaire at his desk with a pen in his hand. Engraving by Baquoy, ca. 1795.

Irony is a notoriously two-edged weapon: ambiguity is of the essence. Writers seek to be understood à demi mot, that is, they wish for their overt statement to be grasped, and immediately afterwards, if not simultaneously, for their “true” meaning to force itself upon the reader’s attention. For this to happen, the skill of writers must be such that what they write will neither be too obvious (in which case there would be no irony, merely sarcasm), nor too obscure (for then the point would be lost). But the reader’s intelligence and sensitivity must also engage if the writer’s half-hidden meaning is not to pass altogether unnoticed. In other words, long before it became a commonplace in literary theory that the pursuit of literature necessitates the engagement of writer and reader in an act of cooperation rather than in the passive reception of a monologue, authors were in fact relying heavily on their audience’s ability to go half-way to meet them; if this did not happen, ironical discourse fell on stony ground. How often we say of a person in everyday life that he or she is “deaf to irony,” or that “irony is lost” on her or him. Obtuse people will receive only a writer’s overt meaning, and take it seriously; Voltaire’s belief that “a tyrant can only be spoken to in parables” holds true only if the tyrant in question is open to persuasion and willing to engage in the interpretation of double-entendres. But accomplished ironists usually manage to be sufficiently plain so that all but the most obtuse reader grasps the point they are obliquely making.

Voltaire’s speciality is what I call “double irony” and it works by springing a surprise on the reader. In Candide, for instance, we learn that the servants suspect that our hero was the son of the baron’s sister and a worthy gentleman of the neighbourhood whom she refused to marry because his genealogical tree had been swept away by the ravages of time. The reader thinks that this is simply a jibe at aristocratic snobbery. But then we see that Voltaire has a surprise in store for us: the lady did not let her snobbery interfere with her sexual appetite. Normally, though, his genius is not for such complexities of paradox. Simplicity of attack was his ideal: he intended that his irony should be transparent and that the point should not be obscured. His butts were the religious fanaticism and obscurantism of the clergy and the arbitrary injustice and cruelty practised by the state’s political masters. He prefers the relatively straightforward devices of using words like bonté (goodness), or héroïque, or honnête in the opposite of their usual senses, and of ironical concessions, such as “although he was young and wealthy, he knew how to curb his passions,” or “the master was a philosopher withdrawn from the world, who cultivated wisdom and virtue peacefully, but who nevertheless was never bored” (my italics). But he is not averse to showing his hand freely, as in Zadig: “He looked upon men just as they were, as insects devouring each other on a tiny atom of mud.”

On the 318th anniversary of his birth, let us salute the great ironist who who wrote (clearly showing his hand again): “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Even as I write, terrible atrocities are routinely being committed around the globe by those who have been made to believe absurdities: we have never needed Voltaire’s wit and wisdom more than at this moment.

John Fletcher is emeritus professor of comparative literature at the University of East Anglia and senior research fellow at the University of Kent. He translated Voltaire’s Pocket Philosophical Dictionary for Oxford World’s Classics. He wishes to acknowledge the generous help of Orla Fletcher in compiling this blog post.

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