Catriona Seth, the Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature, is the first female holder of the post
By Dr Richard Lofthouse
All Souls fellow Catriona Seth and Jesus fellow Dr Caroline Warman have presided over a remarkable mass collaboration of Oxford undergraduates and the Modern Languages faculty. 102 students from 15 colleges have translated dozens of snippets from eighteenth century France, published by Open Book Classics as Tolerance: The Beacon of the Enlightenment. Many of the passages have never before been translated into English, and many of the writers will not be familiar.
The project began in France as an impassioned response to the Charlie Hebdo assassinations a year ago, and was initially the brainchild of the French Society for the Study of the eighteenth century. Its President Catriona Seth (Magdalen, 1982) has recently come to All Souls from the University of Lorraine. Seth recalls that the French volume, which was assembled and published in mere weeks, was intentionally sold in French newsagents, thus avoiding the fate of most academic books.
Soon after, with Seth’s help and the support of many others from Oxford and elsewhere, the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies decided to organise a panel discussion of the project at their annual conference, and also translate the French volume into English. That was when Warman ‘crowdsourced’ Oxford talent for the translations.
Just published in the UK in multiple formats including a free, downloadable PDF, Tolerance received more than 10,000 downloads in its first week.
This evident success rests partly on the range and brevity of the entries, which fizz with subversive energy and the incredibly ‘modern’ quality that only the French Enlightenment can conjure with. Indeed, while many of the entries uphold reason over religious fanaticism, as one might expect, in lots of cases the irony pours down messily over the very France that has seemingly presided over recent attacks. For example, we encounter a snippet from Denis Diderot’s fictional ‘supplement’ to Bougainville’s Voyage Around the World (1771), in which he imagines a Tahitian elder delivering a blistering attack on departing French explorers and colonialists. While the Oxford translator helpfully points out that the ‘stick of wood’ referred to bitterly by the Tahitian is “presumably a crucifix”, thus offering an anti-clerical hint, the broader passage is simply anti-colonial and anti-French. It rejects ‘universal values’, not for ghastly fanaticism but because supposed French civilization is totally at odds with “nature’s purest instinct”, which serves as the guide of the Tahitians. The passage is in fact not anti-religious but anti-French. It ends with the Tahitian elder exclaiming, “We have no desire to trade what you call our ignorance for your useless enlightenment.”
It is hard not to think of the Paris banlieues, the suburbs of discontent that appear to have nurtured such hatred for France by several dispossessed groups, notably Muslims. They may be today’s towerblock Tahitians, crushed by intolerant and unreflective genuflections to the very Enlightenment traditions that are otherwise extolled here.
For the speed with which the volume has been thrown together, it is terrific to have visual portraits of each writer, particularly the lesser well-known ones such as Alexandre Deleyre, whose 1756 Encylopédie entry, ‘Fanaticism’, (‘simply superstition in action’) brims with attitude as he imaginatively surveys all the ridiculous cults invented by credulous humans. He imagines an anti-virility cult in which “A young man seeks to mollify the instrument of his virility by attaching iron rings to it that weigh as much as it can bear.”
Condorcet, Diderot, Locke, Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire are all present as you might expect, but what of Marmontel, Beaumarchais, Jaucourt, and Jeanne-Marie Roland?
What unites them is that they are sick to the stomach of violence proceeding from beliefs, and long for the calm space brought by reason, as they see it.
The volume has a slightly chucked-together feel to it, but achieves what is seldom seen in the UK even as it is omnipresent in the US: the mischievous brilliance of a good undergraduate reader.
It’s a super read quite apart from its intended purpose and will broaden your horizons, even if you once matriculated in modern languages.