NYPL President Paul LeClerc Talks Voltaire


“Your nature is to do evil; mine is to love the truth and publish it despite you.” This entry is from Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, under the entry on Fate. On the 250th anniversary of the publication of Candide, Voltaire’s masterpiece attacking the philosophical doctrine of Optimism made popular by writers like Alexander Pope and Gottfried Leibniz, the New York Public Library has organized Candide at 250: Scandal and Success, examining the many forms and legacies of this bold, satirical tract.

Dr. Paul LeClerc is not only the president of the NYPL, but an integral part of the realization of this exhibition. Comprising borrowed elements but mainly representing a proud acquisition for the NYPL collection — they now own one of only two complete sets of all 17 “original” versions. We caught up with LeClerc on the eve of the opening to talk censorship, connoisseurship, and Catholic school.

Flavorpill: For everyone who hasn’t read the book since primary school, what is Candide about?

Paul LeClerc: Candide is really concerned with making a distinction between two categories of evil. There’s physical evil — the Lisbon Quake, Hurricane Katrina — that can’t be prevented, only caused or responded to. Then there’s moral evil — the kind people do to each other. Every character in the book is a stereotype, and there’s certainly subconscious anti-Semitism and homophobia in there; it’s like an encyclopedia of all the moral evils. It is categorically not a novel; these flattened depictions are mashed together like an accordion. There is a conceptual, ethical, and religious framework within which each man has tried to explain Evil, and in Voltaire’s time there were several theories, such as Optimism.

FP: Wasn’t he a practicing Catholic?

PLC: I’ll tell you a funny story. I attended Catholic school, and in those days, the Church maintained a list of forbidden books, and if you wanted to read them, as a good Catholic, you had to request written permission from your Bishop. I asked for leave to read three books: Candide, Le Rouge et le Noir, and Madame Bovary. Of course, I was granted permission. But the idea never left me: What is so unsettling about these books?

In any case, Voltaire was a deist. He believed God created the world and a set of rules then turned his back. Science is discovering those laws. The deistic god isn’t involved. The world is programmed, Man is not. But the 1755 Lisbon earthquake radicalized him. He wrote a poem basically wondering how any God could care about his children, yet kill 20 thousand in a moment. That poem was his first response, then a few years later, Candide was his second. It was the biggest blockbuster of the 18th century.

FP: How involved were you in organizing the show? Was it something you always wanted to do, or was it prompted by holes in the NYPL collection?

PLC: I’ve been interested in Voltaire since I was a teenager. When I got here, I did notice the collection was marginal… Let me start earlier. When I got here, Brooke Astor invited me to tea, we met in her private library, and I noticed she had a very important 72-volume bound edition of his complete works, which I saw as a good omen. She told me that day, “Paul, have fun at the library,” and I took her seriously! So building the collection of Voltaire is certainly one way I have fun. I find young curators to work with each time we revisit Voltaire.

FP: What have been some of the most enduring qualities of the book over 250 years?

PLC: The history of the book’s illustrations represents several national pictorial traditions. The Germans concentrated on the horrors with glittering surfaces; the French embraced the superficial optimism. By far the most popular scene to illustrate is the one with the gorillas chasing the naked women in the forest. His arguments for freedom of speech and his challenge of prevailing morals still have a lot to offer. Voltaire as a propagandist used all means to get his message of change out. I think he’d embrace new media. He was against war — he’d be as horrified as we are. He was a champion of human rights. I think he’d conclude that there is still a lot of work to be done.

Candide at 250: Scandal and Success will be up at the New York Public Library through April 25, 2010.