The extremely rich relationship that Voltaire had with the Orient was marked by the paradigm of “estrangement”, a detour via the Other that leads to the building of a critical awareness of Self.
Voltaire, the tragic playwright, who in his day was seen as the worthy successor of Racine and Corneille, was no stranger to Oriental exoticism. Mariamne (1720) takes place in Jerusalem, as does Zaïre (1732); Tanis et Zélide is set in Egypt (1733), the operatic tragedy Samson (1733, written for Rameau) on the banks of the Adonis River (Nahr Ibrahim) in Lebanon, Zulime (1740) in Tremizen, the modern Tlemcen (1740), Mahomet (1741) in Mecca, Sémiramis (1748) in Babylon, Saül (1763) in the various scenes of the Biblical Near-East, Les Scythes (1767) in Ecbatana in Iran, and Les Guèbres (1769) in Syria. In comparison, Greek settings barely make the grade, from his first play Œdipe (1718) to Agathocle (1779, posthumous), without forgetting, among others, Mérope (1743) and Irène (1778) set in Byzantium. Exoticism based on South-America (Alzire, 1736) or Peking (L’Orphelin de la Chine, 1755) were one-offs: the Orient was clearly the primary colour of the writer’s exoticism, derived from the travellers’ tales of the Jesuit masters of his childhood, extended with historical research of all sorts, and nourished by Galland’s Thousand and One Nights.
Voltaire’s Orient, which was philosophical above all (in the 18th century sense of the term), thus stood as one of his preferred routes for the religious and moral polemics which he ceaselessly conducted against the Eurocentrism of Christian civilisation. The model of this approach against “prejudices” can be found in two famous lines from Zaïre:
“J’eusse été près du Gange esclave des faux dieux,
Chrétienne dans Paris, musulmane en ses lieux.”
But, while approaching the Other means being able to open up the Self, for one and all it also leads to revealing the Same. The only point in the shock between forms of Otherness lies in being able to see better everybody’s identity, and finding, thanks to an ironic turn, a universal centre, concealed beneath the superfluous folklore of superstitions. This dialectic soon came in for a deal of criticism for having carried out a twofold assault, against both the difference of the Other, and the rooting of the Self. From the Romantics to Roland Barthes, taking in fieldwork Structuralism, the Voltairian model has been seen as a form of tolerance based on the showing up of the smallest common denominator, sometimes with a verbal violence, or the superficial form of a cumbersome levelling based on an unconscious imperialism. The paradox of living together, while prospering on the removal of differences, is clearly at the origin of a certain French conception of secularism, which is still today a source of doubts and misunderstandings.
Mahomet seems to be a perfect illustration of these tensions, as its long reception shows. As an image of the intolerant Christianity of the time, the fanaticism of the prophet was rejected as being inexact and unjust by the German critics, including Goethe even though he translated and staged the play in Weimar. The tragedy is sometimes seen purely and simply as a pamphlet against Islam, even though Voltaire himself in other works, for example L’Essai sur les Mœurs (1756), his vast “universal history” which is more open than anything before him to the Near and Far East, describes this faith in a far more favourable light. In reality, his Mahomet is neither quite an Other, nor quite the Same, given that he is set in a theistic rationale of a twofold undermining of the identity. Thus, by passing through the Other, this necessarily leads to a return.
Voltaire’s Orient is also a site for conflict between the great monotheisms and above all the place of birth of the Christian religion, the occasion for constant mockery, in that the philosopher reassigns the scriptures, especially the Bible, to their human, only too human origins, and so to a geographical and cultural determinism. He thus satirised the excessive, overinflated “oriental style”, and customs, which as a “worldly”, modern Parisian, he judged to be wilfully archaic and barbarous.
What remains of this play of polemical masks still represents an essential part of Voltaire’s enchantment. The rococo aesthetic, to which he belongs beneath his classic appearances, can be understood as the paradox of a void overladen with ornaments, which end up overflowing from their polemical instrumentalization, almost standing alone, in irony’s splendid suspense of meaning. In the numerous philosophical parodies of the Thousand and One Nights, the metaphor of the tale as a dream narrative becomes so obsessive that it initiates imitators of psychoanalysts into the subconscious (Popper-Lynkeus, Freud’s alter ego, was a determined Voltairian). Whether it be in Le Crocheteur borgne, Zadig, La Princesse de Babylone, or any of the many narratives coming from this teeming imaginary, the Orient presents the parallel image of the dream Self, the deforming mirror of the subconscious baroque of the Enlightenment’s eulogists – the Same in the Other, still.
Image caption : Portrait de Voltaire.
 “By the Ganges, I would have been the slave of false gods / A Christian in Paris, a Muslim here.”