Nettime mailing list archives

Re: <nettime> A Puff Piece on Wikipedia (Fwd)
Keith Hart on Sat, 4 Oct 2003 03:01:11 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

Re: <nettime> A Puff Piece on Wikipedia (Fwd)

>If Locke, Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, and D'Alembert were all in the
habit of publishing anonymously, why is it their names are so familiar (and
attached to their writings,usually) some 250 years later? Was anonymity
merely a ploy, with clues provided somehow for true authorship? In the case
of Voltaire, we know this was a 'pen-name.' Was it affixed to his work, and
if not, what use would a pen-name have been?<

Thanks for asking, Michael. Christopher Kelly (Rousseau as Author, Chicago,
2003, pp. 12-13) has this to say:

"Today the anonymous publication of a book like Primary Colors is likely to
cause a sensation, but in the century or so leading up to Rousseau's
literary career in 1750, seminal books of the Enlightenment such as
Descartes' Discourse on Method, Spinoza's Tractatus, Locke's Two Treatises
of Government, Hume's Treatise of Human Nature and Montesquieu's Spirit of
the Laws and Persian Letters all were originally published anonymously. By
the time Rousseau's first important works were published, his best friend
Diderot had published numerous books such as the Pensees philosophiques,
Les Bijoux indiscrets and the Lettre sur les aveugles, all of them
anonymously and some clastestinely or with a false indication of place of
publication. It may always be true that one cannot judge a book by its
cover, but in Rousseau's day one could also not judge it by its title page,
which could lie about the author, publisher, place and date of publication.
Indeed at times prohibited books made new appearances under a misleading
title so that one couldnot even be confident that the title on the title
page was genuine."

Part of the reason we know about them, when they often chose to write in
disguise is because of historians like Kelly. In many cases, they became
famous in their own lifetime and authorship was acknowledged publicly in
retrospect. Often it was a kind of elite game in which it was understood
who the author was, but it was convenient for the powers and the writers
not to have to acknowledge it in public. Malesherbes, the director of
Publishing, was capable of appointing a friend of the author as censor, as
when d'Alembert was appointed Censor of Rousseau's Letter to d'Alembert on
the theatre and approived it for publication without reading it.  Rousseau
himself was scrupulous about respecting authorial anonymity, referring to
the author the Spirit of the Laws as "an illustrious philosopher" and not
by name, even though few educated people would be in doubt about it.

So why did they choose anonymity? Mainly because innovative ideas could get
you killed. In 1762 Rousseau published both the Social Contract and Emile:
or on education. Even though post-revolutionary France named a Paris street
after the first, it was the second that really upset the authorities since
its thesis was that church-sponsored education damaged the mind and was
designed to reproduce passive subjects. The Archbishop of Paris issued a
fatwah saying that the chiurch would honour anyone who killed Rousseau. The
latter was burnt in effigy in Amsterdam, Geneva and Paris. The hit squads
were after him all over Europe and he had to take refuge in the Prussian
Swiss dependency of Neuchatel whose governor, George Keith, an exiled
Jacobite, eventually arranged a safe house for J-J in England through David

John Locke didn't publish anything until he was almost sixty, even though
there is evidence of manuscripts similar to his main publications that were
written when he was half that age. He only felt safe to go public when he
was able to return with William and Mary from exile in Holland at the time
of the Glorious Revolution. Before that he narrowly escaped the fate of
being hanged with three others on suspicion of being the author of an
anti-royalist pamphlet. Even when he was a secure public figure, he still
published the Two Treatises anonymously. And as for how well-known he is
today, 18th century England knew only his Thoughts on Education in which he
popularized potty training, not his works on political theory and
epistemology which were influential in America and Europe, virtually
inaugurating the Enlightenment by themselves.

David Hume, in his exemplary five-page autobiography, written shortly
before he died of cancer, tells us that, as a junior son of landed gentry,
he set out to make his fame anf fortune as a writer, But his first effort
bombed miserably and he published the Treatise of Human Nature anonymously
because he was afraid that a further failure would destroy his already
tattered reputation and shut off other sources of income.

But Voltaire, he of the nom de plume, takes the biscuit in these name wars.
He published anonymously a scandalous anti-religious tract, The Oath of the
Fifty, and publicly denied that he had written it. He then, not for the
first time, encouraged others to believe that it was written by Rousseau.
Voltaire lived in France just outside Geneva, presumably so that he could
hop over the border if things got hot. He needed to stay the right side of
the Geneva authorities from whom Rousseau, although a citizen, was
estranged for several reasons including his conversion to Catholicism.
Rousseau got his own back on Voltaire in Letters Written from the Mountain,
defending the Social Contract and Emile from censorship in Geneva. In it he
makes up a speech in the name of Voltaire in the course of which he,
Voltaire, admits authorship of The Oath of the Fifty. Voltaire, who had
never liked Rousseau, was now outraged and published anonymously the most
damaging pamphlet written against J-J, Sentiment of the Citizens, where he
revealed that Rousseau sent the offspring of his servant mistress to the
orphanage (true), a crime for which his contemporaries and posterity never
forgave him. Rousseau refused to believe that Voltaire could have written
such scurrilous stuff and wrote a pamphlet of his own accusing a Genevan
pastor of being the author. Voltaire also wrote many private letters
accusing Rousseau of further heinous crimes, including that of being an
informer. He then secretly informed on Rousseau himself. Voltaire later
published anonymously Lettre de M. de Voltaire au docteur Jean-Jacques
Pansophe, claiming that he was being stitched upo be the real author.
Rousseau complained about it in writing to Hume who published his letter in
English. Voltaire seized on this as proof that Rousseau was an unscrupulous
liar. And so it goes, most of the information in this paragraph being taken
from Kelly's enthralling book.

So what's the point for nettimers or wikipedia? I have several in mind, but
I prefer for now to ask you, dear reader, what you think it might be.

Keith Hart

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net