Printer Friendly

Voltaire's satire on Frederick the Great: Candide, his Pothumous Memoires, Scarmendado, and Les Questions sur l'Encyclopedie.

TOWARDS the end of his Histoire de l'Empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand (1759-63), Voltaire indulges in the sort of spurious high-mindedness that later generations found distasteful in his work, and which undermined, in certain quarters, his reputation as a moralist. Relating Peter the Great's alleged role in the death by torture of his heir the Tsarevitch Alexis (1690-1718), the Enlightenment historian reminds the reader that in modern times the standards of "universal criticism"--in other words, the requirement to take into account all printed and manuscript sources, as well as personal testimony--make it more difficult than hitherto to impugn unfairly the reputation of historical figures. "Il suffisait," he writes, "d'une ligne dans Tacite ou dans Suetone, et meme dans les auteurs des legendes, pour rendre un prince odieux au monde, et pour perpetuer son opprobre de siecle en siecle" (857-858). What Voltaire is in effect saying is that historians of the past routinely used biased and carefully selected data to formulate unbalanced and unfair judgments and that, by contrast, the modern historian should recognize the duty to be both impartial and truthful.

Voltaire characteristically ignored this worthy ideal when, at the same time as he was writing the history of Peter the Great, he penned his Memoires pour servir a la vie de M. de Voltaire ecrits par lui-meme. These include a description of Frederick the Great which is partial, biased, and malicious, especially in relating the King's alleged homosexuality. How is it, we might ask, that could Voltaire act in a way wholly unfaithful to his own principles? Voltaire's Memoires only appeared after his death. There is nevertheless considerable evidence to suggest that he intended the manuscript for publication. A pirated edition was printed in 1784 under the title of La Vie privee du roi de Prusse. The book's scandalous revelations guaranteed that it was promptly banned by the authorities in France following a formal complaint by the Prussian Minister Goltz. The Memoires remained outside the Voltairean canon until Beaumarchais brought out the last (and seventieth) volume of the Kehl edition of Voltaire's Oeuvres in 1789, after the King of Prussia's death.

Anticipating the outrage that publication of the Memoires in the Kehl edition would unleash, the marquis de Villette--who incidentally was married to Voltaire's adopted niece--claimed in 1788 that Voltaire wrote them after his return from Prussia and that he burnt the manuscript following his reconciliation with Frederick sometime in the mid to late 1750s. Villette adds, however, that before Voltaire destroyed the manuscript, two copies had been made without his knowledge. We now know that Voltaire wrote his Memoires in the late 1750s, and that, far from destroying the manuscript, he commissioned at least five copies of it himself. One of these copies is in the same hand as the La Valliere manuscript of Candide (Wade 141). Voltaire must have known--indeed he must have hoped--that his Memoires would be published after his death. But why?

In a recent, annotated edition of the Memoires, Jacqueline Hellegouarc'h conjectures that Voltaire's purpose in composing this narrative was both personal and literary. On the personal side, Voltaire never forgave Frederick II for ordering his incarceration at Frankfurt and for holding him and his niece prisoner for five weeks in the late spring and early summer of 1753. Recent biographers agree that that incident had an effect on Voltaire as profound as the thrashing he had received some thirty years earlier from le chevalier de Rohan (Pomeau 737-748). Voltaire had this in common with the Bourbons: he never forgave and he never forgot. The malice evident in the Memoires has persuaded many that Voltaire's observations on Frederick the Great's sexual habits were not reliable. Carlyle, notably, dismissed Voltaire's assertions as a scandalous libel and most academic historians have followed suit (1:11-12). Even the gossipy writer Nancy Mitford could not bring herself to repeat Voltaire's allegation that Frederick regularly bedded his own grenadiers. And so, although the Memoires have not been widely quoted by historians, their literary worth, as Hellegouarc'h points out, has been increasingly acknowledged. Wade, for example, claimed as early as 1959 that the Memoires are as well-written as Candide (132). Further, in his 1973 "cours de Sorbonne," Pierre-Georges Castex took the same view as Wade, that Voltaire wrote his Memoires and Candide concurrently and that the former explains many of Candide's obscure allusions to contemporary events and personalities. Castex notably argued that the Memoires contain the seeds of the satire on Prussian militarism in Candide chapters 2 and 3 (118-119). More recently, Frederic Deloffre credits Jean Sareil--who realized that the theme of homosexuality was common to both the Memoires and Candide--with having deciphered Voltaire's designation for Frederick the Great as Candide's "roi des Bulgares," or "King of the Buggers" (259-263). Long before Sareil, Candide's English translators were alert to the homosexual meaning behind Voltaire's use of the term bulgare and his intention to satirise Frederick the Great and his army (Langille/Brooks 386). Certainly since Donald Frame's 1961 translation, editors and academics including Peter Gay and J.H. Brumfitt have included the complex derivation of that word in their notes (Gay viii-x). (2) They were aware that the word bulgare has the same etymological root as Bougre or Bougrie, which signified in Old French, from the time of the First Crusade, both the Bulgar nation and the Bulgar homeland. Brumfitt for example makes clear that the key to Voltaire's meaning in Chapters 2 and 3 of Candide hinges on the way he manipulates the word bulgare in reference to the King, his army and its 'drill.'

If the 'Bulgars' are Prussians, why did not Voltaire call them Prussians? All the other nationalities which he satirises are referred to by their proper names. The identification of their king with Frederick the Great probably provides the answer to this question, for Frederick had the reputation of being a homosexual, and 'bulgare' has the same etymological root as bougre. (164)

By the thirteenth century, bougre had become a term of abuse that covered the supposedly heretical views of the Bulgars. The word and its cognates bougrerie/bougresse came to mean heretical, as applied, for example, to the Albigensian heresy in late medieval France. Since it was widely assumed at the time that heretics indulged in sins against nature, bougre came to signify sodomite. Both meanings are attested in the sixteenth century, though bougre meaning sodomite (or pederast), as suggested by the adoption in France of the Italian neologism bougrino, had by that point eclipsed the earlier meaning of the word (Bidler 82). In Renaissance France, and indeed until the close of the eighteenth century, Italian fashion, manners, and affectations were in some quarters synonymous with effeminacy and homosexuality. Thus, in Voltaire's time, the word bougre primarily meant a male homosexual.

Interestingly, the modern Latinate spelling of the French noun bulgare dates from the end of the seventeenth century, by which time the memory of the Crusades had faded and the word bougre had ceased to signify the inhabitants of what Voltaire calls Thrace. And so, whereas Nicot records the neologism bulgaire as early as 1606, the modern French spelling bulgare is, in fact, much more recent. It can be traced to the Jesuit Journal de Trevoux, where it first appeared in 1732. Voltaire favoured that orthography in his Essais sur les moeurs published in 1756, and it is intriguing to think that its derisive use in Candide--which mentions the Journal de Trevoux in a pointed way--might constitute yet another slight on the Jesuits whom Voltaire never tired of accusing of pederasty. (3)

The use of the term bulgare to suggest bougre is consistent with Voltaire's highly developed sense of literary decorum. Even in private, Voltaire--whose ribaldry is well documented--could only just bring himself to insinuate the 'b-word', through use of the euphemistic 'b ...' (D5856) or the Italian buggerone (Stewart 320). Le roi des Bulgares must therefore be seen to have provided a clever and elegant way of suggesting buggery without actually writing it. Voltaire had good reason to want to conceal his satire from Frederick who was after all a friend, though a powerful and dangerous one. The trouble, of course, is that the meaning behind the word bulgare in Candide can have been grasped only by those aware of its etymological link to the word bougre (Langille 53-63). Edme-Francois Mallet's (1713-1755) erudite article in the Encyclopedie (Bulgares 1755) gives the etymology of the word: "on dit d'abord Bougares et Bougueres, dont on lit le latin Bugari et Bugeri; et de-la un mot tres sale en notre langue (2:461);" it would seem fair to suggest that this article provided Voltaire with a witty verbal device to lampoon Frederick and avoid easy detection. The only problem being that even the most cultivated readers could hardly be expected to penetrate such heavily veiled satire. None of the eighteenth century commentaries on Candide give any hint that Voltaire's contemporaries understood his covert meaning. Bulgare and bougre were not, and have never been interchangeable. In the entire canon of French literature, Voltaire is the only author to use the word bulgare to suggest pederasty. Thus Smollet's annotated edition of Candide recognizes the portrait therein of Frederick the Great. The author of Roderick Random is nevertheless entirely silent on its homosexual satire and seemingly unaware of it (18:7). And though it is true that some of Voltaire's imitators exploited the theme of homosexuality in an unsophisticated way, they never alluded to the King of Prussia, let alone to his sexual habits (Langille 2003 xvi-xvii; Sareil 1986 5). As one might expect, the same is true of nineteenth century's great Voltaire scholars (Beuchot, Moland, Desnoiresterres, Faguet, Lanson, Brunetiere, Morize), none of whom seems even remotely aware of the homosexual dimension latent in Candide's satire. These men were the product of a puritanical age, and, if they were aware of Voltaire's intent, they may have remained silent on a subject they found embarrassing or felt unworthy of comment. But late as 1915, Remy de Gourmont--who was a good friend of the lesbian American writer Natalie Clifford Barney and no stranger himself to what he referred to as 'the third sex'--wrote an anti-German piece entitled Le roi des Bulgares, in which he emphasizes Voltaire's prophetic assessment of the bellicose German character (41-42). Gourmont knew that "le roi des Bulgares" represented Frederick II. And though insinuating that he was a homosexual would have added to his anti-German diatribe, Gourmont seems simply not to have realized Voltaire's special use of the word bulgare. Finally, Sareil pointed out as recently as 1979 that the satire is drawn with what he called "incredible discretion" and that it is no wonder that no one grasped it. Sareil even adds that "l'allusion a echappe pendant deux cent trente-neuf ans la curiosite des chercheurs" (Sareil 1979 186). If bulgare had meant homosexual in the eighteenth century, Sareil is not likely to have cited his reading of that word as an important discovery.

One point not hitherto noticed by literary scholars, but which also serves to identify Frederick the Great as the King of the Bulgars, is Voltaire's consistent use of the plural "Bulgares" in relation to the King. Horn writes that Frederick styled himself rex Borussorum or "King of the Prussians" rather than rex Borussiae, the "King of Prussia," the hereditary title used by his father and his grandfather (37). Another fact supporting this identification comes from Voltaire's private secretary Collini. In his memoirs Collini writes that the short tale Scarmentado (1756), a text recognized as a forerunner of Candide, contained, in its 1753 version now lost, an unflattering allusion to the Prussian King.

Encore froisse des injustices qu'il venait d'eprouver [Voltaire] composa les Voyages de Scarmentado, conte ingenieux qui renferme des allusions visiblement applicables aux evenements dans lesquels il avait figures. (p. 61)

Voltaire's Correspondance reveals that Mme Denis was so alarmed by what the tale said about "Barbarigo"--and given Colini's version of the tale's genesis, Barbarigo is almost certainly an Italian code-name for 'Frederico'--that she twice implored her uncle to change the offending passage (D5766). Since the final version of Scarmentado contains no reference to Frederick (or Barbarigo for that matter), Nedergaard-Hansen has written that "ces allusions nous restent mysterieuses" (273-274). And yet, given all we know from Voltaire's Memoires, one simply cannot avoid the conclusion that the earlier version of Scarmentado made Frederick's homosexuality explicit in a crude way and that revising the tale, Voltaire removed what he calls the "petite plaisanterie de Barbarigo et de Scarmentado" (D5744). Significantly, the final version of Scarmentado--whose peregrinations anticipate Candide's own wanderings --contains no reference direct or otherwise to Prussia. It is thus temping to conjecture that, eliminating what Mme Denis thought a dangerous allusion from the final version of Scarmentado, Voltaire squirreled it away for future use.

It is now widely agreed that Voltaire's satire of Frederick's homosexuality resurfaces in Candide, but that, in order to conceal it, Voltaire contrived a play on words so discreet and so virtuosic that is all but undetectable. The problem is that, while it perhaps satisfies the author's taste for revenge, undetectable satire misses its intended target. What could Voltaire do? How could he lift the veil on this heavily shrouded word-play?

I would like to propose that Voltaire may have realized his all too successful concealment and that he tried in a later publication to make his meaning clearer. I refer to an article whose significance in this context has not yet been noted, entitled "Bulgares, or Boulgares." It appeared in the 1775 edition of Voltaire's largest work Les Questions sur l'Encyclopedie and provides an unmistakable key to the complex wordplay we have just examined. Consider its first sentence in which Voltaire, following Mallet, spells out the etymology of the word Bulgare, and shows how it is related to the obscene word bougre. Always a stickler for literary protocol, Voltaire naturally resorts to euphemisms (non conformistes etc.) to designate the male homosexual:

Puisqu'on a parle des Bulgares dans le Dictionnaire encyclopedique, quelques lecteurs seront peut-etre bien aises de savoir qui etaient ces etranges gens, qui parurent si mechants qu'on les traita d'heretiques, et dont ensuite on donna le nom en France aux non conformistes, qui n'ont pas pour les dames toute l'attention qu'ils leur doivent; de sorte qu'aujourd'hui on appelle ces messieurs Boulgares, en retranchant l et a. Les anciens Boulgares ne s'attendaient pas qu'un jour dans les halles de Paris, le peuple, dans la conversation familiere, s'appellerait mutuellement Boulgares, en y ajoutant des epithetes qui enrichissent la langue. (330-334)

By using the word Boulgare (stipulating that one drop the L and the A) Voltaire both suggests and avoids the unpleasant "b-word." But that does not mean that in eighteenth century usage boulgare was used to imply bougre. The word boulgare does not exist. No dictionary records it. The 'common folk'Voltaire refers to here did not call each other boulgare in the market place. In the context Voltaire describes, they used the familiar bougre, as Voltaire implies, in the same way that an English speaker might use the word bugger:

Le mot de Boulgare, tel qu'on le prononcait, fut une injure vague et indeterminee, appliquee a quiconque avait des moeurs barbares ou corrompues. C'est pourquoi, sous saint Louis, frere Robert, grand inquisiteur, qui etait un scelerat, fut accuse juridiquement d'etre un boulgare par les communes de Picardie. Philippe le Bel donna cette epithete a Boniface VIII. Ce terme changea ensuite de signification vers les frontieres de France; il devint un terme d'amitie. Rien n'etait plus commun en Flandre, il y a quarante ans, que de dire d'un jeune homme bien fait: C'est un joli boulgare; un bon homme etait un bon boulgare. Lorsque Louis XIV alla faire la conquete de la Flandre, les Flamands disaient en le voyant: "Notre gouverneur est un bien plat boulgare en comparaison de celui-ci." En voila assez pour l'etymologie de ce beau nom. (p. 333-34)

In the context of this piece, the phrase "le mot de Boulgare, tel qu'on le prononcait", is another roundabout way of saying the 'b-word.' Repeated use of the word Boulgare (minus the L and the A) naturally reinforces Voltaire's explanation that it has the same etymological as bulgare. Clearly, it seems, he wanted to prompt the reader to take in his satire in Candide.

The conclusion of the piece emphasizes the ongoing evolution of the word bougre, with Voltaire reporting that in the north of France and in Flanders, the word when used to describe a young, well-built man had lost its pejorative meaning, in much the same way that, say, 'bugger' or 'sod' have in English today. The phrase: "il y a quarante ans, que de dire d'un jeune homme bien fait: c'est un joli boulgare" can be read as a direct reference to Candide where, in Chapter 2, Candide himself is described by the two Bulgars as "un jeune homme tres bien fait" (C: 122); and Cunegonde's brother describes himself as "fort joli" (C: 173) in Chapter 15, where he recounts the Jesuit father Croust's "most tender affection" for him.

It is finally intriguing to speculate whether Frederick spotted the homosexual satire in Voltaire's portrait of the "roi des Bulgares." He surely must have been particularly sensitive on the subject. Voltaire, in his best mock innocent guise, dutifully sent him a copy of the novel in April 1759. Frederick responded quickly (28 April 1759), declaring that Candide is: "la seule espece de roman qu'on peut lire" (D8273). There appears no break in the correspondence of the two men during the following months. Quite the contrary. This may suggest that Frederick was oblivious to Voltaire's subversive meaning or that he chose to ignore it. The fact remains that from the time it was published until the end of his life, Frederick praised Candide both in private and in public. His Eloge de Voltaire, for example, delivered before the Royal Academy of Arts and Science in Berlin on 26 November 1778, refers explicitly to Candide in glowing terms (3:217-218). It seems unlikely that, had he realized the extent of Voltaire's malicious intent, the King of Prussia would have chosen that solemn occasion to remind his assembled academicians of an elaborate (and obscene) joke at his own expense. Some may suggest that the King's praise for Candide was a case of noblesse oblige. But, given all we know about Voltaire's complex relationship with 'Federic,' I am inclined to think that, in this particular instance, it is Voltaire who had the last laugh.


Bidler, R., Dictionnaire erotique: Ancien francais, Moyen Francais, Renaissance (Ceres, Montreal) 2002.

Carlyle, History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great, 21 vol. (Chapman and Hall, London) 1858-62.

Castex, P. G., Voltaire : Micromegas, Candide, L'Ingenu (Centre de documentation Universitaire, Paris) 1973.

Collini, Mon sejour aupres de Voltaire (Leopold Colin, Paris) 1807.

Gourmont, Remy de, Le Roi des Bulgares, Pendant L'Orage (Paris, Champion) 1915.

Deloffre, F., "Genese de Candide : etude de la creation des personnages et de l'elaboration du roman", SVEC 2006:06.

Encyclopedie, ou dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts, et des metiers, 1751-1780, (reprinted Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, Friedrich Fromann Verlag, 1967).

Frederic II de Prusse, "Eloge de Voltaire," in Oeuvres de Frederic II, vol. 3 (Voss et fils, Berlin) 1789.

Horn, D.B., Frederick the Great and the rise of Prussia (The English Universities' Press, London) 1964.

Langille, E. M., Allusions to Homosexuality in Voltaire's Candide; a reassessement, SVEC 2005:05.

Langille, E. M. and G. P. Brooks. "How English Translators Have Dealt with Candide's Homosexual Allusions," Literary Research/Recherche litteraire 18.36 (2001).

--, Candide, seconde partie (1760), ed. E. Langille (University of Exeter Press) 2003.

Mervaud, Ch., Voltaire et Frederic II : une dramaturgie des lumieres 1736-1778 (Voltaire Foundation, Oxford) 1985.

Michel, Charles, Oeuvres du marquis de Villette (Clousier, Paris) 1788.

Mitford, Nancy, Frederick II, King of Prussia 1712-1786 (Harper and Row, New York) 1970.

Nedergaard-Hansen, L., "Sur la date de composition de Scarmentado", SVEC, 2 (1956).

Nicot, Thresor de la langue francaise (David Douceur, Paris) 1606.

Pomeau, R., Voltaire en son temps (Fayard /Voltaire Foundation, Oxford) 1995.

Sareil, J.,"Le Portrait de Frederic II dans Candide et les Memoires de Voltaire", Voltaire und Deutschland, ed. Peter Brockmeister, Roland Desne (Jurgen Voss, Stuttgart) 1979.

--, "Sur la genealogie de la verole", TLTL, 26 : 1 (1986).

Stewart, P., Engraven desire: Eros, Image and Text in the French Eighteenth Century (Durham and London Duke University Press) 1992.

Voltaire, Oeuvres completes, 70 Vols., ed. Beaumarchais (Kehl) 1784-1789.

--, Les Questions sur l'Encyclopedie, Oeuvres completes, vol. 26, t. 2 (Cramer, Geneva) 1775.

Voltaire, Histoire de l'Empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand (1760) ed. Michel Mervaud in the Complete Works of Voltaire, vol. 46/47 (Voltaire Foundation, Oxford) 1999.

--, Correspondance, ed. Th. Besterman in the Complete Works of Voltaire (Voltaire Foundation, Oxford) 1968.

--, Essai sur les moeurs, ed. Rene Pomeau (Classiques Garnier, Paris) 1963.

--, Candide ou L'optimisme, ed. Rene Pomeau, in the Complete Works of Voltaire, vol. 48 (Voltaire Foundation, Oxford) 1980.

--, Candide: a Bilingual Edition, translated and edited by Peter Gay (St. Martin's Press, New York) 1963.

--, Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories, translated by Donald M. Frame (Bloomington, Indiana University Press) 1961.

Candide; Ou L'Optimisme, ed., J.H. Brumfitt (Oxford University Press) 1968.

--, The History of Candide or All For the Best (parts II & I) in The works of Mr. De Voltaire (vol. 18) translated from the French, with notes, historical and critical by Dr. Smollet, and others, Vol.1-25 (J. Dewberry, R. Baldwin, W. Johnson etc., Salisbury), 1762.

--, La Vie privee du roi de Prusse, ou Memoire pour servir a la vie de M. de Voltaire ecrit par lui-meme (chez les heritiers de MM Rey, Amsterdam) 1784.

--, Memoires pour servir a la vie de M. de Voltaire, Oeuvres completes de Voltaire vol. 40, ed. Beuchot (Firmin Didot, Paris) 1829-40.

--, Memoires pour servir a la vie de M. de Voltaire ecrits par lui-meme, ed. Jacqueline Hellegouarc'h (Le Livre de poche, Paris), 1998.

Wade, Ira, O., Voltaire and 'Candide': a study in the fusion of history, art and philosophy (Princeton University Press, Princeton) 1959.

(1) The author wishes to thank Peter Urbach for his helpful comments.

(2) Voltaire chose [the name Bulgare] to represent the Prussians of Frederick the Great because he had reason to think that Frederick was a pederast and because the French bougre, like the English "bugger," comes from (Bulgare) Bulgarian (Frame 99).

(3) Comment veux-tu, disait Candide, que je mange du jambon, quand j'ai tue le fils de monsieur le baron, et que je me vois condamne a ne revoir la belle Cunegonde de ma vie? A quoi me servira de prolonger mes miserables jours, puisque je dois les trainer loin d'elle dans les remords et dans le desespoir? Et que dira le Journal de Trevoux (C:176).


COPYRIGHT 2007 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Romance Languages
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Langille, E.M.
Publication:Romance Notes
Date:Sep 22, 2007
Previous Article:The false-bottomed suitcase: historical memory and textual masochism in Carmen Martin Gaite's El cuarto de atras.
Next Article:The rereading of Willy Munzenberg's and Margarete Buber-Neumann's lives in Antonio Munoz Molina's novel Sefarad (2001).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters