Two versions of Voltaire: W.H. Auden and the dialectic of enlightenment

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Abstract

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, W. H. Auden and the authors of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, ask themselves, in independent reflections, why attempts to free thought from oppressive schemata result in more-insidious forms of oppression: as clerical establishments go into decline, modernity creates new forms of mythological consciousness. For all three authors, the emergence of fascism in the early part of the twentieth century is proof of this and gives urgency to their inquiries into enlightenment. For all three, Voltaire is a pivotal figure, for his struggle against the unity of apologetic discourse and ruthless power allows them to discern an element of enlightenment that survives the most rigorous critique of its oppressive tendencies. This essay examines Horkheimer and Adorno's fragment "For Voltaire" alongside Auden's poem "Voltaire at Ferney" and shows how the latter both anticipates and reveals the limits of the former. (SYG)

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPMLA
Volume120
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 1 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory

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