Friday, April 2, 2010

The Reading List: Candide

Voltaire, 1759

OK, so apparently Candide was first and foremost intended as a swipe at Philosophical Optimism, an idea championed by Leibnitz, the guy who we remember today as The Other Guy Who Developed Calculus. Philosophical Optimism was – so far as I can tell – the semi-theological (or maybe totally-theological) notion that this crazy old world is necessarily the best of all possible worlds, even if it often doesn’t seem much like that to those of us who happen to live here. And wow, Voltaire really lays into Philosophical Optimism with a vengeance in this novel! Leibnitz must have been all, like, "Ouch!" But since nobody has really been pushing Philosophical Optimism per se for, oh, a couple of centuries now, the book has lost some of its intellectual punch.

No matter. Even having lost its raison d'etre, Candide is good, madcap fun. In fact, it would be exaggerating only a little to say that it still retains a certain comic freshness after 251 years. It is a little amazing to a modern reader – or at least to me – to find such an anarchic, absurdist sense of humor in a book that predates.... well, that predates almost everything we might read, hear, watch, or experience in everyday life (excepting certain very old buildings in participating locations).

Voltaire writes with a straight-faced silliness that is likely to resonate with Monty Python fans. The eponymous hero, whose name gives away his perfect naiveté, is raised in a German castle called “Thunder-ten-tronckh.” Early on, he falls into service in the “Bulgarian” (but clearly the Prussian) army, and learns how to drill magnificently; later in the book he will, like Colonel Scheisskopf in a much later book, be considered a military genius due to his acumen on the parade ground.

Lots of silly and random misadventures befall Candide and everyone he meets. Voltaire makes not the slightest gesture towards making the progression of events plausible or even logical, and indeed characters that have been killed off in early chapters are forever reappearing with miraculous stories of how they weren’t really dead after all. This free-wheeling style lets Voltaire make fun of pretty much everything, everybody, and everyplace. From Germany, Candide will find his way to Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Paraguay, El Dorado, Surinam, Paris, England, Venice, and Turkey – if I’m not forgetting anything – and the rulers and institutions of all these places, even the imaginary one, are lampooned with merciless, equal-opportunity gusto.

In addition to his social satire, Voltaire also breaks down and satirizes the conventional logic of the novel. No doubt he has long since been claimed as a pre-modern exponent of post-modernity by those in charge of mapping such terrain. If not, you are more than welcome to take this up as a dissertation topic. Mention me in the acknowledgements, is all.

What makes Voltaire a top-notch satirist is his ability to see both sides of an issue and mock them both ruthlessly, often leaving you with no idea where he stands on the issue himself. A character called Pococurante, for instance, is used to make fun of mindless adulation of the classics. Here he is talking about the Iliad:
Once I was made to believe I took pleasure in reading it. But that continual repetition of combats that are all alike, those gods that are always active and never do anything decisive, that Helen who is the subject of the war and who has hardly any part in the action, that Troy which is always besieged and never taken – all that caused me that most deadly boredom. I have sometimes asked learned men whether they were as bored as I was in reading it. All the sincere ones admitted to me that the book fell out of their hands, but that you always had to have it in your library, like an ancient monument, or like those rusty coins which cannot be used in commerce.
So wow! He’s taking the piss on Homer! In 1759! That's pretty radical! But then, a few pages later, a sentence from his airhead hero, Candide, makes fun of people who create the impression of great intelligence by taking surprising contrary opinions:
"Oh, what a superior man!” said Candide under his breath. “What a great genius this Pococurante is! Nothing can please him.”
So, does Voltaire think the Iliad is boring and overrated? Or does he think that it would be ridiculous to think so? No tellin'!

Prognosis: Still an easy and entertaining read after all these year, Candide is a funny and humane parody of the ways of the world. Reading it today, it’s nice to see that, to an extent, the ways of the world have made some progress. One always wishes that one could say that we've made so MUCH progress that Voltaire’s satire has lost its bite, and is now of purely historical interest. But no. Still funny, still biting, and all too often still on target.


Ben said...

Did you read the copy pictured? In the original French?

Michael5000 said...

Um... non.

Aviatrix said...

In the original Klingon?

Michael5000 said...

Actually, I read it in the original English.

Eversaved said...

Yay! Candide!

I will always have a soft spot in my heart for this book. I'm glad you enjoyed it.