Feb 20: Our Far-Flung Correspondents

Voltaire on the Quakers today, and while this may be a classic, what it feels like is that you're reading a magazine article -- a high-toned one, like The New Yorker or Atlantic. It's the famous writer doing a little reporting on this odd and somewhat prominent religious sect. He gets to know one of them, then he tells us their history, then he gives us the current state of play. The tone is exactly the same -- clear, witty, detached. ("George Fox... took it into his head to preach, and, as he pretended, with all the requisites of a true apostle—that is, without being able either to read or write.") Voltaire even puts himself in the story, in the manner of the New Journalists, as we learn that he's uncircumcised.

(And here I have to digress to tell the story about a prop guy on one of my shows, who one day confided in a fellow writer, "I'm leaving this world the same way I came into it. Foreskin intact." Other than that, though, that guy was nothing like Voltaire.)

The equivalent today would be an article on the Scientologists, and there are parallels:

Rich convert William Penn = Rich convert Tom Cruise
Pennsylvania = Hollywood Boulevard
Native American esteem for the Quakers = Battlefield Earth

There it breaks down a little. The Quakers do seem more admirable than the Scientologists, what with the pacifism. Here's Voltaire's Quaker friend:
We never war or fight in any case....Our God, who has commanded us to love our enemies, and to suffer without repining, would certainly not permit us to cross the seas, merely because murderers clothed in scarlet, and wearing caps two foot high, enlist citizens by a noise made with two little sticks on an ass’ skin extended.
Xenu has never topped that. No magazine article would be complete without interesting facts, and so Voltaire also tells us why they thee'd and thou'd so much -- because it gives people airs if you address them in the second person plural. I wonder if that distinction even signified much back then.

And what of the Quakers going forward? Voltaire proves that he is the better class of writer by avoiding the Remains To Be Seen dodge:
I perceive it dwindles away daily in England....Their children, whom the industry of their parents has enriched, are desirous of enjoying honours, of wearing buttons and ruffles; and quite ashamed of being called Quakers they become converts to the Church of England, merely to be in the fashion.
Kids and their ruffles, right?

1 comment:

M.J.Rubinski said...

"Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books." Emerson, in a speech at Harvard, August 31, 1837