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The Omarian meditations of C.F. Volney

Bob Forrest
June 2012

C.F. Volney

In 1791, writing in the thick of the French Revolution, Volney, in his book Les Ruines: ou Méditation sur les Révolutions des Empires, translated into English as The Ruins: or Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires (1), wrote of contemplating, albeit at second-hand (2), the derelict state of the once great city of Palmyra (the Biblical Tadmor-in-the-Wilderness):

“And now behold what remains of this powerful city: a miserable skeleton! What of its vast domination: a doubtful and obscure remembrance! To the noisy concourse which thronged under these porticoes, succeeds the solitude of death. The silence of the grave is substituted for the busy hum of public places; the affluence of a commercial city is changed into wretched poverty; the palaces of kings have become a den of wild beasts; flocks repose in the area of temples, and savage reptiles inhabit the sanctuary of the gods. Ah! How has so much glory been eclipsed ? How have so many labours been annihilated? Do thus perish then the works of men – thus vanish empires and nations?” (Chapter 2)

Fig. 1. Doré, The New Zealander

Volney’s thoughts are strikingly echoed in FitzGerald’s verse 16 (3), with its transient procession of “Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp”, and again in his verse17, with its ruins inhabited by the Lion and the Lizard. I do not know if FitzGerald ever read or was aware of Volney’s book, but I assume not, as Volney is not mentioned in any of his extant letters. But the implication of such transience was simple: what had happened to the ancient city of Palmyra yesterday could happen to London or Paris tomorrow. Towards the end of his chapter 2 Volney wrote:

“Who knows if, on the banks of the Seine, the Thames, the Zuyder-Zee, where now, in the tumult of so many enjoyments, the heart and the eye suffice not for the multitude of sensations — who knows if some traveller, like myself, shall not one day sit on their silent ruins, and weep in solitude over the ashes of their inhabitants, and the memory of their former greatness.” (4)

Such thoughts were all the more real in Volney’s time, in view of the French Revolution – not just in France, but in England too, which feared a repeat of the events in France, and where the recent loss of the American colonies added to uncertainties about the future. But to return to Volney, at the end of his chapter 2 he wrote:Note, though, that Omar Khayyam’s “Drink!” philosophy does not find a parallel in Volney, for in his sequel to Les Ruines, which was published, in 1793, under the title La Loi Naturelle (translated into English under the title The Law of Nature, and included in the volume cited in note 1) Volney referred to drunkenness as “a most vile and pernicious vice” (Chapter 6.) It is not so much that the “Natural Law” under which (according to Volney) Man should live to maximise his happiness forbids the drinking of wine, it merely forbids the abuse of it, but since use can so easily lead to abuse, it is best left alone. It would have been interesting to have Omar’s response to this!

“Ah! Hapless man…a blind fatality sports with they destiny! A fatal necessity rules with the hand of chance the lot of mortals! But no: it is the justice of heaven fulfilling its decrees! – a God of mystery exercising his incomprehensible judgments. Doubtless he has pronounced a secret anathema against this land: blasting with maledictions the present, for the sins of past generations. Oh! Who shall dare to fathom the depths of the Omnipotent?”

Fig. 2. Volney, Ruins Frontispiece

Such thoughts are very reminiscent of the sentiments contained in FitzGerald’s verses 49 (“Where destiny with Men for Pieces plays”) and 50 (“He knows about it all – He knows – He knows”), and yet Volney himself did not actually share Khayyam’s and FitzGerald’s fatalism – he believed that Empires failed because of the failures within their peoples, and that it was wrong to accuse either Fate or God for the calamities that beset Mankind. It was all a matter of deducible Natural Law that Science could unravel using Reason; then, by harnessing that Natural Law, one could produce the Ideal Society. Back in 1791 that must have seemed much more reasonable than it does now, two centuries later, and with so little progress in that direction! But that is another matter.

There are some striking parallels between Volney and FitzGerald, not least of which is Volney’s imagined elevation to “the aerial heights” from which he could view the Earth as “a globe like that of the Moon” (Chapter 4), and which parallels Khayyam’s viewing of the Earth from the Seventh Sphere (“the Throne of Saturn”) in FitzGerald’s verse 31. Again, Volney specifically mentions, in his Chapter 20, the seventy two feuding sects of Islam, which feature in FitzGerald’s verse 43. Yet again, Volney’s view on Original Sin, expressed in his Chapter 21 (“What!...because a man and a woman ate an apple six thousand years ago, all the human race are damned ?”), likewise finds a parallel in FitzGerald’s verse 58, where God effectively damns the human race by the creation of the Snake that induced Eve to eat that apple. Indeed, FitzGerald’s own comment, made in a letter to Thackeray, written on October 10th 1831, about “a just God who damned us all because a woman ate an apple” (5), might almost be quoted from Volney! (Note, though, that Voltaire said much the same about that fateful apple in his entries “Bien, tout est Bien” and “Péché Original” in his Dictionnaire Philosophique.) Yet again, Volney’s representation of the “great controversy respecting God and his Nature” between the theologians of different faiths, to be found at the end of his Chapter 21, finds a ready parallel in FitzGerald’s verse 27, where, after all the controversy, Khayyam comes out none the wiser (“Came out by the same Door as in I went”.)

Note, though, that Omar Khayyam’s “Drink!” philosophy does not find a parallel in Volney, for in his sequel to Les Ruines, which was published, in 1793, under the title La Loi Naturelle (translated into English under the title The Law of Nature, and included in the volume cited in note 1) Volney referred to drunkenness as “a most vile and pernicious vice” (Chapter 6.) It is not so much that the “Natural Law” under which (according to Volney) Man should live to maximise his happiness forbids the drinking of wine, it merely forbids the abuse of it, but since use can so easily lead to abuse, it is best left alone. It would have been interesting to have Omar’s response to this!

Notes

1. The translation used here is taken from the (New York) Truth Seeker Company edition of 1950, one of a series of Freethinking Books “that all reformers should read”. The Publisher’s Preface tells us that “the translation here given closely follows that published in Paris by Levrault, Quai Malaquais, in 1802, which was under the direction and careful supervision of the talented author.” The same translation is now available on the internet at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1397/1397-h/1397-h.htm.

2. Though Volney, in the opening chapter of The Ruins, talks of visiting Palmyra, it seems he never actually did so. There was probably no deception intended in this, for The Ruins was a philosophical work, and, thus, in a sense, a work of fiction. He had certainly been to Syria, and had published an account of his travels in Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte pendant les Années 1783, 1784 et 1785, first published in 1787, but the section of his book dealing with the ruins of Palmyra was, as he made clear, based on Robert Wood’s book, The Ruins of Palmyra, which had been published in 1753. In fact, it would appear that the ruins on which Volney meditated in his famous philosophical work were those depicted in Wood’s plate 1!

3. Verse numbers cited here are to the First Edition of FitzGerald.

4. This image of a traveller in the future looking down on the ruins of London or Paris as we today look down on the ruins of Palmyra, was a popular one in the later 18th and 19th centuries. Some years before Volney, in November 1774, Horace Walpole had written in a letter to Sir Horace Mann of how “some curious traveller from Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St. Paul's.” Walpole also compared the ruins of London to those of Palmyra. Again, in 1819 Shelley had written, in the Dedication of his poem “Peter Bell the Third”, of a time in the future, when “some transatlantic commentator” would see London as the “habitation of bitterns” and when “St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins.” The most famous image of this type, though, was Gustave Doré’s engraving The New Zealander, first published in London: a Pilgrimage by Doré and his collaborator Blanchard Jerrold in 1872 (Fig.1). This, in its turn, drew on an image created by the historian Macaulay, writing in, of all places, a book review in the October 1840 issue of The Edinburgh Review. Here the traveller from the future is from New Zealand and he will, “in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.” (p.228) Doré’s engraving bears interesting comparison with the frontispiece of the 1950 edition of Volney’s Ruins cited in note 1 (Fig.2), this being one of several different, but basically similar, engravings which have been used to illustrate the work in the two centuries since its first publication.

5. A.M.Terhune and A.B. Terhune, Letters of Edward FitzGerald (1980), vol.1, p.103.