Bringing back Voltaire

I continue guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs, with one more post to come.

One thing I appreciate about the Internet is the availability of books online. Recently I have been reading John Tallis’s two-volume History and Description of the Crystal Palace (1852), illustrated with steel engravings. Tallis comments on the Crystal Palace’s origins, preparation, and construction; the nations that took part in the 1851 Exhibition; the excitement, the press, the opening ceremonies, the visitors, and of course the exhibits: sculptures, model ships, bridges, locomotives, cloths, gemstones, papier-mâché, glassworks, machines, electric telegraph, and more. He vividly describes the history, significance, cultural particularities, and workings of item after item. It is exciting to read. While some of the exhibition was probably a bit gaudy (he hinted as much himself), one can understand why visitors were awed by it. Charlotte Brontë wrote, “It is a wonderful place—vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things.”**

But there is a curious digression in Tallis’s book. At one point he imagines Voltaire coming back from the dead to visit the exhibition. Actually, Tallis admits that he has extracted this account from columns of “Christopher North” (pseudonym of John Wilson, apparently), but Tallis clearly enjoys the story enough to retell it. North’s fictional Voltaire scoffs at progress from the start:

What a din this age makes about its progress! it travels fast enough, if that were all. Rapid progress of that kind. For the rest let us see whether the world is revolving in any other than its old accustomed circle.

Voltaire inspects a locomotive, which a professor of mechanics proudly introduces as an “iron slave.” Voltaire points out that this locomotive will require much tedious human labor:

Putting my head out of the window of my railroad carriage, whilst we were yet at the station, I saw an industrious mortal going from wheel to wheel with a huge grease-pot, greasing the wheels. He greases wheels from morning to night; eternally he greases.

Voltaire criticizes not only the false progress but the “ornamental nonsense”:

A true work of art is a sufficient end in itself. Must I have the human figure scattered everywhere upon every utensil I possess! Can I not have a time-piece but a naked woman must sprawl upon it? Is this doing honour to the most beautiful of forms, to make it common as the crockery or drinking cup it is called in to ornament? … If I pour water from a ewer into a basin, must I seize a river-god by the waist?

Voltaire continues on his tour. A professor proudly shows him the printing-press, which delivers news with “wonderful celerity.” This printing press, the professor explains, can bring parliamentary debates to the reader on the very same morning that they occurred, along with editorial comments. Voltaire’s response:

I hope … that the orations are equally wonderful. They should be. From what I remember of such matters, I think I could wait a few more hours for them without great impatience; and perhaps the well-written comments would not suffer by the delay.

One thing does impress Voltaire: the electric telegraph. For a short while he cannot take his eyes off it. His “cynical humor” returns, however, when he finds himself “surrounded by improved fire-arms, muskets that would kill at the distance of five hundred yards, and many-barrelled pistols, which promised to deal half-a-dozen deaths in as many seconds.”

Finally Voltaire returns to the “territory of the shades,” and Tallis resumes his exuberant tour.

I am moved by Tallis’s appreciation of this fictional Voltaire and his criticisms. For all of Tallis’s rapture over the exhibition (and encyclopedic understanding of its details), he sees where it goes wrong, where it dips into folly.

Isn’t there something to be said for bringing back Voltaire whenever we have some grand plan or reform? That is, not Voltaire necessarily (unfair to call on him all the time), but someone whose wisdom we trust? Or has wisdom become a hindrance? Do we have no room for the skeptic in our enthusiasms?

*John Tallis, Tallis’s History and Description of the Crystal Palace and the Exhibition of the World’s Industry in 1851 (London: John Tallis and Co., [1852]), vol. 2, pp. 44-52.
**Charlotte Brontë, letter to Revd. Patrick Brontë, 7 June 1851, in Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontë, ed. Margaret Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 190.


  1. Absolutely. Our cultural DNA needs an Amish gene –not to stop all innovation, but to induce us to reflect before trashing the old and grabbing the new.

    Bertrand Russell:
    “Those who think science is everything… tend to think that skill can take the place of wisdom, and that to kill each other by means of the latest technique is more ‘progressive’, and therefore better, that to keep each other alive by old-fashioned methods.”

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The tedious drudgery of carrying around a pot of grease eternally is depressing, yes.

    But the tedious drudgery of pulling frozen potatoes from frozen ground is both depressing and physically destructive.

    Give me my fat, lazy, modern depression over medieval backbreaking drudgery any day.

  3. The charm of the past relies on faulty memory.

    You can keep Voltaire. And Russell.

  4. Grease pots vs potatoes…most likely, Voltaire noticed the drudgery of the grease pots because it was *new*, but didn’t consider the drudgery of the potatoes because it had always gone on…