Voltaire and fanaticism in Zaïre (Part. 2)

By AlexLec, 

On the 13th of August 1732, Voltaire went on to depict fanatisme in Zaïre. This five-act tragedy marked a shift in his representation of fanatisme: Voltaire’s choice of the dramatic genre over poetry seems to reveal that he intended to emphasize the visual and theatrical nature of the concept. In Zaïre, Voltaire exploits the technique of shifting appearances for the representation of fanatisme. Furthermore, the author also seems to consider this technique as a means of questioning the visual nature of fanatisme – as will be discussed later on. Finally, Voltaire’s depiction of fanatisme in Zaïre reflected the tension at the core of both eighteenth-century theatre and the conceptualization of fanatisme, namely the juxtaposition of words and visual elements.

In 1719, the abbé Dubos published his influential Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et le théâtre in which he argues that the art of painting is superior to other forms of art because ‘la peinture agit sur nous par le sens de la vûë’ and ‘la vûë a plus d’ empire sur l’ame que les autres sens’[1] and that the theatre should, in a similar fashion, use ‘le sens de la vûë’ to move the audience. His argument encouraged dramatists to take advantage of the visual nature of the stage and to put more emphasis on this than on poetic and versified language as the visual elements of a production, he suggested, had more direct impact than words on the audience.[2] Voltaire, who described Dubos’s work as ‘le livre le plus utile qu’on ait jamais écrit sur ces matières chez aucune des nations de l’Europe’, saw a potential to exploit this new emphasis on the visual effects of drama on stage.[3] As mentioned previously (see Fanaticism, the mot à la mode in eighteenth-century France ajouter un lien hypertexte), Voltaire’s definition of fanatisme particularly underlined the visual, graphic aspects of the concept through the examples of the convulsionnaires, the Quakers and the affaire Calas. Consequently, it was an ideal subject for the stage and the stage was the ideal place to represent fanatisme.

However, the stage also enabled Voltaire to depict fanatisme in a different way from his philosophical or poetic works. In the epic poem La Henriade, as we have seen, Voltaire sets out to personify fanatisme as an evil figure – symbolized by the darkness of the chiaroscuro technique (‘vêtu d’un lugubre appareil’) – who attempts to corrupt the hero, Clément. However, in Zaïre, Voltaire gives his audience a new image of fanatisme. He seems to present this concept through Nérestan’s personality. Nérestan can be considered by the audience to be a fanatic because he sees himself as a saviour who will liberate Orosmane’s Christian slaves and whose actions are the expression of God’s will around him. At the beginning of the second act, Nérestan clearly says that: ‘Dieu s’est servi de moi, seigneur’ (v.338).[4] This particular line reveals linguistically how Nérestan sees God acting through him: God becomes the subject of his body and of the sentence whereas his body has become the instrument of God and the indirect object in the sentence. However, Nérestan is also presented as a heroic figure in Zaïre. Ronald Ridgway even goes as far as to say that Nérestan ‘symbolise bien l’idéal chevaleresque du Moyen-Âge’.[5] He benefits from a heroic entrance on stage: Voltaire purposefully delays it until the fourth scene of the first act which has the effect of increasing the importance of his character within the play. In addition, the reason for his presence on stage in this same scene is also heroic: Nérestan arrives as a Christian knight who has come back to Jerusalem to liberate Orosmane’s Christian slaves. Nérestan triumphantly declares: ‘et dès ce moment même ils [the slaves] sont libres par moi’ (v.248).[6] The noun ‘moment’ suggests his presence is the determining factor in the Christians’ liberation. It poses Nérestan as a symbol of freedom. The pronoun ‘moi’ also reveals his power, and the authority he claims to have over the Christians’ lives. Compared to the negative view of fanatisme in La Henriade, Voltaire highlights the fanatical Nérestan’s heroism, bravery and charismatic presence on stage right from his first appearance in Zaïre.

By contrast, Orosmane would probably have been considered a fanatic by Voltaire’s audience. As a Muslim sultan unwilling to set Lusignan free, he seems to represent intolerant authority oppressing its enemies; and at the end of the play, Orosmane even goes so far as to kill his lover. However, Wellington has suggested that ‘although Orosmane’s crime of passion is inexcusable, he is only an aggressor, emotionally charged by misinformation, not an oppressor’.[7] More precisely, Orosmane thinks that Zaïre and Nérestan have formed an attachment and kills Zaïre out of jealousy. This is made clear in the ninth scene of Act V where, upon hearing Zaïre say ‘Est-ce vous, Nérestan, que j’ai tant attendu?’ (v.1560), Orosmane declares ‘C’est moi que tu trahis’ (v.1561).[8] The verb ‘trahis’ reveals how Orosmane believes that Zaïre is unfaithful as she is waiting for Nérestan in the middle of the night, an act which is often associated with infedility. The Latin root of the verb trahirtradere meaning abandonner – also suggests that Orosmane feels abandoned by Zaïre. In this sense, it is possible to say, like Wellington, that Orosmane is an aggressor rather than an oppressor. Orosmane does not kill Zaïre to make her or Nérestan suffer like a fanatic would do; he cruelly murders her for purely selfish motives. Orosmane feels he is the one suffering because he has misinterpreted their relationship. He feels he has lost Zaïre, and this eventually leads him to lose his mind and murder her. Thus, in Zaïre, Orosmane appears as a fanatic but really is a (cruel) jealous lover, whereas Nérestan appears as a hero when he can in fact be considered to be a fanatic. Voltaire thus seems to exploit the ambiguity of fanatisme’s appearances through his depiction of Nérestan and Orosmane in Zaïre.

Even though Voltaire uses the dramatic genre to focus on the visual nature of fanatisme, he can also seems to question its importance by highlighting the importance of words in Zaïre. For example, the opposition between Orosmane, the aggressor, and Nérestan, the fanatic, implicitly reveals an opposition between sight and words. Orosmane often relies on what he sees to judge Zaïre’s attitude towards him:

Mais pourquoi ces pleurs, ces regrets, cette fuite,
Cette douleur si sombre en ses regards écrite? (v.983-4)[9].

He thinks he can read her attitude of deception – underlined by the ternary rhythm of ‘ces pleurs, ces regrets, ces fuites’ – like a book, as suggested by the metaphorical adjective ‘écrite’. He does not rely on what Zaïre tells him in order to judge her. Whatever she tells him, he continues to believe that she is betraying him:

Je veux voir à quel point une femme hardie
Saura de son côté pousser la perfidie. (v.1309-10)[10]

As for Nérestan, he does not trust sight as much as he trusts words. This can be seen in the language he uses. Nérestan often chooses verbs such as ‘promets’ (v.887)[11] and ‘jurez’ (v.787)[12] to ask Zaïre to become a Christian. Contrary to Orosmane, he prefers to trust what she says rather than what he sees of her. These two particular verbs also reveal how Nérestan considers words as oaths, as a form of invisible allegiance beyond the visible. When Zaïre promises or swears to Nérestan that she will be baptized, she implies – in Nérestan’s view – that she has become a convert to his faith.[13] Thus, Voltaire’s choice in the use of the theatre to depict fanatisme when he wrote Zaïre in 1732 reflected the tension at the core of both fanatisme and eighteenth-century theatre, namely the tension in the juxtaposition of words and the visual.

In 1736, Voltaire developed further the tension between words and the visual in his conceptualization of fanatisme when he wrote Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le prophète. The fundamental principle of his play seemed to be the exposure of fanatisme. However, any kind of assertion about Mahomet is hazardous since the play depicts the many ambiguities and nuances of Voltaire’s definition of fanatisme. Furthermore, Voltaire seems to fanatisme in Mahomet; and the identity of the fanatic in Mahomet reveals how Voltaire uses his characters to reflect and yet conceal a Catholic type of fanatisme. Haynal’s argument with regard to Mahomet also serves to illustrate how Voltaire exposes not a singular but a plural form of fanatisme conceptualized as the dialectic of the fanatiseur/fanatisé. This dialectic becomes multi-dimensional when the fanatiseur is followed by not one but several fanatisés. However, the attitude of some fanatisés questions the hierarchy established by Haynal’s dialectic as they seem to turn it upside down and exchange roles. Last but not least, Voltaire depicted those who attack fanatisme as fanatics themselves. This new form of fanatisme revolutionises the definition of the concept since it appears to allow for an infiltration into the psyche of the fanatic’s tolerant enemy.

[1]Abbé Jean-Baptiste Dubos, Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et le théâtre, partie 1 section 40 <http://visualiseur.bnf.fr/Visualiseur?Destination=Gallica&O=NUMM-88225>

[2] This idea is taken from Pierre Pasquier’s thesis in Histoire de la France littéraire, Classicismes XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle, vol.2 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2006), p.644-662.

[3] Voltaire, Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.7 (Paris: Fain, 1817), p.1057.

[4] Voltaire, Zaïre ; Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le prophète ; Nanine ou l’Homme sans préjugé ; Le café ou l’Écossaise, (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 2004), p.78 [hereafter Z for Zaïre and M for Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le prophète].

[5] Ronald Ridgway, La Propagande philosophique dans les tragédies de Voltaire (Genève: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1961), p.97.

[hereafter, PPTV]

[6] Z, p.75.

[7] Marie Wellington, The Art of Voltaire’s Theater: An Exploration of Possibility (New York; Bern; Frankfurt am Main; Paris: Lang, 1987), p.95.

[8] Z, p.127.

[9] Z, p.103.

[10] Z, p.116.

[11] Z, p.99.

[12] Z, p.95.

[13] There is a sense however in which Zaïre has a sense of duty and is conflicted, having Christian origins while she has been raised by Muslims.

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