Claire Madl

Once More on Voltaire’s "Work" in Bohemia, or Why Dobrovský Postponed Reading It

pp. 25–41 (Czech), summary p. 41 (English)

The definition of a work as an event is apt for characterising Voltaire's writings. For
not only do we record their impact on historical events, but we also consider Voltaire
himself one of the first intellectuals to step out into the public arena to change the
"state of affairs". However, this topicality of his work is certainly a difficulty when
examining its reception in the Czech Lands in the generations of his contemporaries,
i.e. the actors of the "Czech Enlightenment" and the first Czech National Revival.
A more thorough analysis of this matter (Min?ř, Kopal, Vodička 1964) not only
observed the popularity of Voltaire's plays and hints of "Voltairianism" as a critical
or even ironic approach towards monasticism, superstition, clericalism and fatalism,
but also noted that local authors only claimed allegiance to Voltaire in order to
explicitly reject a figure that embodied theism and free-thinking. Dobrovsky?'s often
commented hesitation to read Voltaire's work seems particularly enigmatic. Thanks
to the now more accessible knowledge about book imports to the Czech Lands and
using two conceptual approaches, we will try to contribute to this discussion and,
subsequently, to the definition of a work and its impact on society. First, we will
take into account the material nature of a work, whose dissemination depends on
its physical characteristics. In the case of Voltaire, the language of dissemination of
his writings and the nature of the book market in the second half of the 18th century
seem to be crucial for the Czech Lands. Furthermore, the angle of viewing Voltaire's
work was strongly influenced by the social context of his reputation. Finally,
censorship practices were an inevitable but ambiguous obstacle. This approach can
situate the moments of reception of a work in the temporality of its never-finished
construction, which, following Pierre-Michel Menger, we will conceive as a process
of its "thinning, consolidation and growth".

Keywords: Czech Enlightement - work - reception - book market - Josef Dobrovský
- Voltaire - Karl Zinzendorf - Ladislav Hejd?nek


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