Book review – Passionate Minds by David Bodanis
Passionate Minds by David Bodanis, Crown Publishers; 1st American Edition edition (3 Oct 2006)
I fear a lapse into hyperbole when I reconsider this wonderful book Passionate Minds by David Bodanis. So if you can forgive the gushing expression of my true passion for this work, I can think of no better introduction to the intricately delicious story of the love between the famous French writer, poet and all round raconteur Voltaire and the sublime, and iridescently attractive Émilie du Châtelet. So deft is Bodanis at entrapping the reader in the rich narrative of the powerful bond between this power couple ushering in the very beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, that one is almost compelled to physically pine for the chance to reverse time and somehow meet these brilliant and engaging characters, for just one day perhaps!
It is very hard to not fall in love with Émilie, in the way in which one might fall in love with a character who has taken on the unrealistic sheen of fantasy through the immortalising lens of history, through this romantic depiction of not only her beauty, and self-confidence, but her superb intelligence, her love for learning, Mathematics, Physics, Philosophy and Astronomy, her sparkling erudition and her wonderfully admirable contribution to the foundations of the later ideas of Einstein.
…You are beautiful
so half the human race will be your enemy
You are brilliant
and you will be feared
You are trusting
and you will be betrayed…
—Voltaire, “Epistle on Calumny,” 1733,
soon after meeting Emilie (everything he predicted came true)
The reader might find oneself entranced, as I increasingly found myself becoming, by this heady mix of intelligence and beauty, but the other main focus of this work is Voltaire, in his own right no slouch in the historical account of not only The Age of Enlightenment but additionally, of a time when it was distinctly deadly to be an embodiment of and fearless champion of so many of the civil liberties and political freedoms we cherish today in the form of good constitutional Democracies. Voltaire was a fearless advocate of these liberties and freedoms – hard-won freedoms easily removed by those in modern times who would see a return to intolerant and less pluralistic times, inured to or in the dark silent absence of Voltaire’s significant contributions.
At the risk of exposing my significantly influenced bias towards Émilie however, even a man as great as Voltaire cannot but be a medium-sized candle to the overwhelmingly brilliant luminescence of Émilie du Châtelet. She is truly the star of this book, and a now gleaming star in the expansive interior world of my cerebrally bound intellectual play room.
This collection of paper and images, bound and printed upon, can barely contain her radiance, but Bodanis does a fantastic job (I have more of his books, waiting expectantly in my reading queue) and he adds truly entertaining and engrossing intricacies of colour and shadow to this tapestry, mainly through his inclusion of letters written by relatives and contemporaries who knew the couple. A depth of characterisation is well revealed through these accounts, and as I read through the middle of the book, and a superbly entertaining account of the establishment of the couple’s laboratory and scientific investigations at their château at Cirey, where they accumulated more than 21000 books together, I grew anxious, agitated and sad that the end must come to even such gargantuan lives as Voltaire and precious Émilie du Châtelet.
I am quite excited and somewhat daunted at the realisation that, in writing this book Bodanis has inadvertently condemned me to an insatiable obsession with Émilie du Châtelet. I must have more books about her, but for those who are currently uninitiated to her fantastic life and story, and those who heed not the strong warning above about the resultant obsession you are sure to face, you can do no better than to begin by reading Passionate Minds.