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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

But egaye perhaps best of all


The _Lettres d'Amabed_[358] are the dirtiest and the dullest of the whole batch, and the _Histoire de Jenni_, though not particularly dirty, is very dull indeed, being the "History of a Good Deist," a thing without which (as Mr. Carlyle used to say) we could do. The same sort of "purpose" mars _Les Oreilles du Comte de Chesterfield_, in which, after the first page, there is practically nothing about Lord Chesterfield or his deafness, but which contains a good deal of Voltaire's crispest writing, especially the definition of that English freedom which he sometimes used to extol. With thirty guineas a year,[359] the materialist doctor Sidrac informs the unfortunate Goudman, who has lost a living by the said deafness, "on peut dire tout ce qu'on pense de la compagnie des Indes, du parlement, de nos colonies, du roi, de l'etat en general, de l'homme et de Dieu--ce qui est un grand amusement." But the piece itself would be more amusing if Voltaire could let the Bible alone, though he does not here come under the stroke of Diderot's sledge-hammer as he does in _Amabed_.

One seldom, however, echoes this last wish, and remembers the stroke referred to, more than in reference to _Le Taureau Blanc_. Here, if there were nobody who reverenced the volume which begins with _Genesis_ and ends with _Revelation_, the whole thing would be utterly dead and stupid: except for a few crispnesses of the Egyptian Mambres, which could, almost without a single exception, have been uttered on any other theme. The identification of Nebuchadnezzar with the bull Apis is not precisely an effort of genius; but the assembling, and putting through their paces, of Balaam's ass and Jonah's whale, the serpent of Eden, and the raven of the Ark, with the three prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and with an historical King Amasis and an unhistorical Princess Amaside thrown in, is less a _conte a dormir debout_, as Voltaire's countrymen and he himself would say, than a tale to make a man sleep when he is running at full speed--a very dried poppy-head of the garden of tales. On the other hand, the very short and very early _Le Crocheteur Borgne_, which, curiously enough, Voltaire never printed, and the not much longer _Cosi-Sancta_, which he printed in his queer ostrich-like manner, are, though a little naughty, quite nice; and have a freshness and demure grace about their naughtiness which contrasts remarkably with the ugly and wearisome snigger of later work.

[Sidenote: Voltaire--the Kehl edition--and Plato.]

The half-dozen others,[360] filling scarce twenty pages between them, which conclude the usual collection, need little comment; but a "Kehl" note to the first of them is for considerable thoughts:

M. de Voltaire s'est egaye quelquefois sur Platon, dont le galimatias, regarde autrefois comme sublime, a fait plus de mal au genre humain qu'on ne le croit communement.

One should not hurry over this, but muse a little. In copying the note, I felt almost inclined to write "_M. de_ Platon" in order to put the whole thing in a consistent key; for somehow "Plato" by itself, even in the French form, transports one into such a very different world that adjustment of clocks and compasses becomes at once necessary and difficult. "Galimatias" is good, "autrefois" is possibly better, the "evils inflicted on the human race" better still, but _egaye_ perhaps best of all. The monkey, we know, makes itself gay with the elephant, and probably would do so with the lion and the tiger if these animals had not an unpleasant way of dealing with jokers. And the tomtit and canary have, no doubt, at least private agreement that the utterances of the nightingale are _galimatias_, while the carrion crow thinks the eagle a fool for dwelling so high and flying so much higher. But as for the other side of the matter, how thin and poor and puerile even those smartest things of Voltaire's, some of which have been quoted and praised, sound, if one attempts to read them after the last sentence of the _Apology_, or after passage on passage of the rest of the "galimatias" of Plato!


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