Volney, M

Tagged: Author

(1757-1820) French philosopher, traveller and author; he adopted the name Volney, a contraction of Voltaire and Ferney (a French commune), which became his title. After initial travels to the Middle East, and the publication of books describing his responses, he deepened his contemplation of the world in Les Ruines, ou méditation sur les révolutions des empires (1791; trans anon as The Ruins; Or, a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires 1792) (for further translations see Checklist below), which though essentially discursive can be understood as Proto SF through its use of a fictional narrator who, taken by a spirit or "genius" into a fixed point in space, is able to observe the planet rotating beneath him. It might be stretching a point to describe his abode as a Space Station, and to describe his vision of times to come as having been obtained via Time Viewer; but there can be no scanting the central importance of this narrator's gaining a perspective on the entire planet turning beneath him (see Fantastika), a freedom of perspective that influenced Jean-Paul Cousin de Grainville a decade later. The gaining of this attack on the world marks a significant moment in the creation of sf (see History of SF): as a release from the provincial surrealities of the Fantastic Voyage, whose main cognitive function is normally to comment exaggeratedly on the narrator's home country; and as a dramatic rendering of the realization that a planet which turns must turn from the past into the future (for further comments on this aspect of The Ruins, see Ruins and Futurity). Significantly, when the Frankenstein Monster from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; Or, the New Prometheus (1818) learns speech and civilization by eavesdropping on the inhabitants of the rural cottage where he later reveals himself, one of the revelatory texts read aloud in his hearing is The Ruins, which was published about two years before the main action of the novel.

Consistent with this planetary perspective, Volney's presentation of things to come, which may be guardedly described as the first planetary Future History, is embedded in a powerful vision of the transience of empires, and in a clearly articulated presentation of the inevitability of a world state, the disappearance of monarchies, and of the folding-in of all Religions into one rationalized church.

Volney visited the United States in 1795, returning two years later after having met Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who shared his Enlightenment principles; during his stay, the two men apparently arranged for Jefferson translate Les Ruines. Whether Jefferson did in fact anonymously translate at least part of the text has not been fully established; but it is argued that if he did so it was for the version published by Levrault in 1802 (see below), with part of the task done by Jefferson, the remainder translated by Joel Barlow. [JC]

Constantin François de Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney

born Craon, Anjou [now Mayenne], France: 3 February 1757

died Paris: 25 April 1820

works (selected; there are many translations of Les Ruines, of which a selection is presented below)


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