Aug 26, 12
Read in August, 2012
For most of my life I have been quoting and cracking wise: "All is for the best in this most perfect of all perfect worlds", a statement whose essential truth is its irony. But until now I'd never read Voltaire's Candide, the source for Dr. Pangloss' sincerely delivered (by the character) but ironically presented (by the author) wisdom. And I'd never known just how vast a survey of 18th century cruelty Voltaire conducted while expressing his ironic untruth and rebutting it.
There are many lovely surprises in this 1759 philosophical romance. The first is the delightful entry it give us into the world of the 18th century itself - its fantasies, politics, stereotypes and lusts. We experience empire in the old and new worlds, common prejudices, and the tapestry of mid-18th century European and American political and social realities. We get a little tour of Voltaire's known world, and an imaginary depiction of the New World too.
Second, Voltaire writes of an age of astonishing brutality - rape, torture, stabbings, auto de fe - the bodies and the suffering are piled as high in this book as any tale of a Soviet Gulag or the Holocaust. An age so experienced understandably raised the most profound questions of good and evil.
Third, this book is delightfully sexual, not in a modern pornographic sense, but in an inimitably 18th century way. It reminds us that lust as much as love is a universal human experience, across the ages. Yet, in the 18th century as portrayed by Voltaire sex is a cruel mistress and master. It has its delights... but the images of punishment for sexual transgressions and of whoredom, disease, rape and the cruelty of lost female beauty are presented unflinchingly. This is the sexual world as it was, and it too is a world of violence and loss.
This is also a romance, that both mocks affection and yet depends upon it, sees its absurdity and yet valorizes it. Candide's love for Cunegonde is basically ridiculous, as is Candide himself and as is the philosopher Pangloss for whom he professes admiration. Yet it is the ground of his being as a character, and drives the whole story forward. He is a romantic fool. In the end, Martin and a humble Turk farmer, provide the answer to Candide and Pangloss's insipid optimism, as illustrated in the quotes below. But I'm not sure that Voltaire completely repudiates Candide's love for Cunegonde.
This is a comedy on many levels. Candide's endless ability to find new money, to land on his feet, to acquire new traveling companions, are all so silly that they hardly need to be remarked upon. The silliness is just good fun, creating situations in which Voltaire explores ideas against the background of evil and cruelty.
It is also of course, specifically, a sex comedy, using the readers prurient interest in matters connubial and concupiscencial to discuss deep philosophical questions. It is reassuring that sex sells, and has been selling since at least the mid-18th century. But is there some deeper connection between sex and the meaning of life, sex and optimism, sex and pessimism, that is plumbed here?
I was moved to think of Kohelet's (Ecclesiastes') questions after I put this down. To what extent are Candide's and King Solomon's wisdom aligned? "The end of the matter, everything having been heard, fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the entire man." This is essentially a Jewish version of "labor in your garden", the garden at issue being the garden of mitzvot, n'est-ce pas? At the very least we can say that both share an attitude of age ripened wisdom, and a certain rejoicing in a clarifying pessimism.
There is however a curious meta-Panglossian sense that in the author's hands, nothing can go wrong, no dungeon will be unescaped, no death will be permanent, and all will ultimately be for the best. And in the end, Candide and his companions are safely delivered, together with the reader, to the wisdom of working the garden.
"'Tis demonstrated," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise; for, since everything is made for an end, everything is necessarily for the best end. Observe that noses were made to wear spectacles; and so we have spectacles. Legs were visible instituted to be breeched, and we have breeches. Stones were formed to be quarried and to build castles; and My Lord has a very noble castle; the greatest Baron in the province should have the best house; and as pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all the year round; consequently, those who have asserted that all is well talk nonsense; they ought to have said that it is for the best."
"One day when Cunegonde was walking near the castle, in a little wood which was called the Park, she observed Doctor Pangloss in the bushes, giving a lesson in experimental physics to her mother's waiting-maid, a very pretty and docile brunette. Mademoiselle Cunegonde had a great inclination for science and watched breathlessly the reiterated experiments she witnessed; she observed clearly the Doctor's sufficient reason, the effects and the causes, and returned home very much excited, pensive, filled with the desire of learning, reflecting that she might be the sufficient reason of young Candide and he might be hers."
"You are very hard," said Candide. "That's because I have lived, " said Martin.
"Music nowadays is merely the art of executing difficulties and in the end that which is only difficult ceases to please." (Pococurante)
"Oh! what a superior man!" said Candide under his breath "What a great genius this Pococurante is! Nothing can please him."
"I should like to know which is worse... to endure all the miseries through which we have passed, or to remain here doing nothing?" (The Old Woman)
"... Martin especially concluded that man was born to live in the convulsions of distress or in the lethargy of boredom. Candide did not agree, but he asserted nothing. Pangloss confessed that he and always suffered horribly; but , having once maintained that everything was for the best, he had continued to maintain it without believing it."
"I have only twenty acres, " replied the Turk. "I cultivate them with my children; and work keeps at bay three great villains: boredom, vice and need."
"Let us work without arguing, said Martin; "'tis the only way to make life endurable."
Said the widow:
"I have been a hundred times upon the point of killing myself, but still I was fond of life. This ridiculous weakness is, perhaps, one of the dangerous principles implanted in our nature. For what can be more absurd than to persist in carrying a burden of which we wish to be eased? to detest, and yet to strive to preserve our existence? In a word, to caress the serpent that devours us, and hug him close to our bosoms till he has gnawed into our hearts?"