Friday, December 12, 2008


I’m embarrassed that I’m only now reading Candide. Especially considering that I spent 1998-2000 completely engrossed by Enlightenment thinkers – specifically the Deists, of whom Voltaire was one. I spent my freshman year of college reading the collected religious writings of Thomas Paine, and books such as Deism in 18th Century America and Religion During the American Enlightenment. You know, normal pursuits for an 18 year old. I remember at one point in there picking up Candide, and maybe reading the first page and then putting it down. I don’t know what my problem was.

So, finally, after 10 years, I came around to Candide. And damn – this book is hilarious! For those of you who don’t know, Candide is a boy who grows up in a Westphalian castle. One day, the Baron catches him kissing his daughter and sends him away, thus starting the chain of adventures that follows. Candide’s teacher, Dr. Pangloss, espouses Leibnizian optimism, stating that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But Candide quickly realizes “if this is the best of all possible worlds, what then are the others?” Explaining Pangloss’s theory later, Candide says, “it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.” The point of the book is to satirize this idea. Shortly after its publication it was banned for blasphemy and political sedition and it was added to the Catholic Church’s list of prohibited books in 1762. Regardless it was a HUGE bestseller at the time. Voltaire didn’t admit to writing it until almost a decade later…though everyone suspected it was him. In 1929, the book was barred from entering the U.S. by a Boston customs official because it was obscene. [This is a great quote.] “For years we’ve been letting that book get by. There were so many different editions, all sizes and kinds, some illustrated and some plain, that we figured the book must be all right. Then one of us happened to read it.” Ah, Mrs. Winterson (Jeanette’s mother) would have known better! What is it she always said – the trouble with books is that you don’t know what’s in them until it’s too late?

Beyond the basic plot and the humorousness of it all, there is a serious side to it as well. The central issue of the novel is the problem of evil – how can an omnipotent and benevolent God allow suffering? This issue came up for Voltaire in the wake of the Lisbon earthquake and the subsequent fire and tsunamis that completely devastated the city in 1755. Prior to that, both Leibniz and Voltaire’s friend Alexander Pope had proclaimed the optimistic doctrine. Voltaire composed a poem entitled “On the Disaster at Lisbon or an Examination of the Axiom ‘All is well’” to directly address the optimist claims in light of the earthquake:

Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!
Come, ye philosophers, who cry, "All’s well,"
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—
A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
In racking torment end their stricken lives.
To those expiring murmurs of distress,
To that appalling spectacle of woe,
Will ye reply: "You do but illustrate
The Iron laws that chain the will of God"?
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
"God is avenged: the wage of sin is death"?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood.

When earth its
horrid jaws half open shows,
My plaint is innocent, my cries are just.
Surrounded by such cruelties of fate,
By rage of evil and by snares of death,
Fronting the fierceness of the elements,
Sharing our ills, indulge me my lament.
"Tis pride," ye say— "the pride of rebel heart,
To think we might fare better than we do."
Go, tell it to the Tagus’ stricken banks;
Search in the ruins of that bloody shock;
Ask of the dying in that house, of grief,
Whether ‘tis pride that calls on heaven for help
And pity for the sufferings of men.
"All’s well," ye say, "and all is necessary."
Think ye this universe had been the worse
Without this hellish gulf in Portugal?

… But how conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favors on the sons he loves
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?
What eye can pierce the depth of his designs?
From that all-perfect Being came not ill:
And came it from no other, for he’s lord:
Yet it exists. O stern and numbing truth!

…‘Tis mockery to tell me all is well.

Voltaire expanded upon this theme in Candide. In Pangloss (the meaning of his name, “all tongues” is obviously getting at him being “all talk”), Voltaire created this ridiculous spokesman for the optimist, who always responds that all is for the best, regardless of what suffering he is confronted with…even his own. As the book goes on, the sufferings become more and more intense, and it seeks to illustrate that in the midst of such terrible circumstances that the characters encounter, it is really absurd to believe that this is the best of all worlds. But Pangloss never waivers. “I am still of my first opinion…for I am a philosopher and cannot retract, especially as Leibniz could never be wrong.” Later, “Pangloss owned that he had always suffered horribly, but as he had once asserted that everything went wonderfully well, he asserted it still, though he no longer believed it.”

Candide, on the other hand, is more wishy-washy about the subject. When things are going well, he asserts this must be the best of all possible worlds; when things are going badly for him, he asserts the opposite. In the end, Candide is married to Cunegonde (though he admits he was never really interested in doing so) and is living on a farm with Pangloss, Martin, Cacambo, and the old woman (are we ever told her name? If we are, I completely forget what it is!) and they are bored and unhappy:

‘"I want to know which is worse, to be ravished a hundred times by negro pirates, to have a buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet among the Bulgarians, to be whipped and hanged at an auto-da-fé, to be dissected, to row in the galleys—in short, to go through all the miseries we have undergone, or to stay here and have nothing to do?"

"It is a great question," said Candide.’

So, they go to see a Dervish and ask him what he thinks about things.

"Master," said he, "we come to beg you to tell why so strange an animal as man was made."

"With what meddlest thou?" said the Dervish; "is it thy business?"

"But, reverend father," said Candide, "there is horrible evil in this world."

"What signifies it," said the Dervish, "whether there be evil or good? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he trouble his head whether the mice on board are at their ease or not?"

"What, then, must we do?" said Pangloss.

"Hold your tongue," answered the Dervish.

"I was in hopes," said Pangloss, "that I should reason with you a little about causes and effects, about the best of possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and the pre-established harmony."

At these words, the Dervish shut the door in their faces.
It is eventually decided by all that they work without arguing with each other – it’s the only way to be content. But Pangloss, being old and set in his ways, keeps trying to explain to Candide why this really is the best of all possible worlds: "There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts." But Candide has finally come to the conclusion that it’s best just to work in the garden, not waste time on discussions about the garden’s design.

The question remains as to whether Voltaire slightly misrepresented the optimist viewpoint. To see that this really is the best possible world, they claim, you must be able to look at events in their totality – as in from an omniscient or divine point of view. One of the central concepts of optimism is that human understanding is too limited to see the reasoning behind human suffering, and it cannot be applied to individual circumstances. That is why Candide continually oscillates – because when good things happen to him, he thinks, yes – all really is for the best; when bad things happen, he thinks, how could this world possibly be the best there is, or as I already quoted him above, if this is the best of all worlds, I’d hate to see what the others look like. Voltaire may be suggesting that optimism isn’t necessarily false, just irrelevant. Until we can see from the omniscient point of view, asserting (like Pangloss) that this is the best of all possible worlds won’t really help us in the midst of tragedy. Kind of like the lame comfort, “it happened for a reason.” Unless you know the reason why bad things happen to you, the fact that there is a reason beyond your understanding isn’t really comforting.

Some have theorized that Candide can be seen as a sequel to the Adam and Eve story. In the beginning, Candide is cast out of the “terrestrial paradise” and begins to wander aimlessly. The Garden of Eden, of course, really was the best of all possible worlds (or at least that’s how it is set up to be…) and Pangloss plays the serpent, whose dalliance with Paquette gave Cunegonde and Candide the idea to try their hand at it, which is what ends up getting Candide expelled from the Castle. The theme of the Garden of Eden is revisited at the conclusion to Candide as well. It’s a totally plausible theory, in my humble opinion, and one that made me completely rethink the novel.

Popular legend has it that Candide was written in three days (though of course it really took much longer); it didn’t take me half as long to read it. It’s short and moves along quickly. I found it hard to put down…wondering what quip Voltaire was going to put in there next. Such as:

“After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.

"In consequence hereof, they had seized on a Biscayner, convicted of having married his godmother, and on two Portuguese, for rejecting the bacon which larded a chicken they were eating; after dinner, they came and secured Dr. Pangloss, and his disciple Candide, the one for speaking his mind, the other for having listened with an air of approbation…They marched in procession thus habited and heard a very pathetic sermon, followed by fine church music. Candide was whipped in cadence while they were singing; the Biscayner, and the two men who had refused to eat bacon, were burnt; and Pangloss was hanged, though that was not the custom.”

This novella’s most obvious comparison is Jonathan Swift, specifically Gulliver’s Travels, but I found Candide much more enjoyable. I had problems with Gulliver’s Travels, mostly because it is so interlaced with 18th century English politics that I just didn’t get it (though I did like when he wee'd on the castle). Candide’s satire is aimed at much more obvious targets…or at least targets I am more informed about than English politics. It also reminded me of Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus, which I sort of read for a German cultures class in college.

I definitely enjoyed Candide, but I wish it hadn't taken me so long to get to it. I know I would have thought it was awesome when I was 18, and I'm sure I would have tortured my roommate even more than I already did by reading it out loud. Oh well, better late than never.

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