Friday, September 17, 2010

“Candide,” by Voltaire

“Optimism” and “pessimism” are terms that have found their way into nearly daily usage and are often defined in terms of water in the glass--is the glass half-full or half-empty? The answer actually depends on whether the glass is being filled, or emptied; otherwise, it is simply half a glass of water.

Voltaire (born François-Marie Arouet, 1694 - 1778) has been called “The Father of the Enlightenment,“ which is a period we describe as the rise of humanism. His philosophy, along with other writers, is still considered to be influential causes of both the French and American revolutions. As a theologian, Voltaire was primarily deistic, but his leanings were more pagan. His most well-known contribution is a a critique and analysis of the times, in the short witty book, “Candide” (1759), which incidentally, could very well be the source of “optimism“ and “pessimism.” The influence and reactions to John Bunyan (“Pilgrim‘s Progress,” 1678 ), Jonathan Swift (“Gulliver’s Travels,” 1726), with perhaps a nod to Miguel de Cervantes (“The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha,” 1605 and 1615) are evident in terms of style, flow and application of this satire.

The character of Candide is the very incarnation of the naïve, the Gomer Pyle type who careens through life saying “Golllllll-y” at whatever comes his way. Literally, his name translates from the French as “candid,” or “ingenuous.” The Latin, “Candidus” means “white,” which creates a witty contrast against his very intelligent, cohesive South-American half-breed valet, Cacambo, who correctly observes, “My dear Master . . . everything seems to surprise you” (Chapter XVI). One might say he is the original “Polyanna.”

Dr. Pangloss, (whose name means “all tongues”) the optimist always has something to say, believing everything happens for a reason (we have spectacles because we have a nose on which to perch them; we have pants because we have legs to put them in; all is right because people talk nonsense)--everything has a purpose and it is all for the better. Dr. Pangloss’ theories receive the fullest attention and are put to the test throughout the story.

Other characters in include Cunegonde, the elusive young woman who captured Candide’s heart; Paquette is the a serving maid who gives Dr. Pangloss syphilis (for the better!) which could be symbolic of the sin nature, as the maid is able to trace the disease to its source); the cynical Old Lady who has faced unmatched tragedy, but loves life; and the scholar Martin, is the pessimist, the antithesis of Dr. Pangloss, who may be influential in causing Candide to distrust the teachings of Dr. Pangloss.

The book begins with Candide being forcibly removed from “the most beautiful and delightful of possible castles,” and ends with some concentrated dialogue on the necessity of “keeping the garden.” Voltiare does take make the most of every opportunity to critique every field of study including theology, and this may be the case here in making drawing parallels with the Biblical account of the Fall; however, it may not be concluded that Candide has regained paradise in the end. The reference to keeping the garden in the end may unintentionally reflect the truth that paradise is not on earth, despite how well one thinks of his situation. One is resigned to sweat and toil because that is the mark of the curse.

Baron Munchausen (1720 – 1797) would have been satisfied with Voltaire’s storytelling method of cartooning through his characters the void that exists between belief and behavior, the warning bell any Christian should heed. Hypocrisies of all kinds are elucidated with immoral priests, illogical philosophers, corrupt rulers and the tragic ends of the pragmatist. Voltaire underscores that behavior is evidence of belief, otherwise all men are liars, thieves, adulterers, etc. Candide would later ponder, “Do you think . . . that men have always massacred each other, as they do to-day, that they have always been false, cozening, faithless, ungrateful, thieving, weak, inconstant, mean-spirited, envious, greedy, drunken, miserly, ambitious, bloody, slanderous, debauched, fanatical, hypocritical, and stupid?”

Near center of the book Candide and Cacambo find their way to El Dorado, which becomes almost mindful of heaven itself. This is a country of perfection, “the best of all possible worlds.” The country is ruled by an absolute monarch, all is at peace, there is no crime and no prison, precious metals and stones are everywhere and are regarded as dirt and rock. Cacambo asks about the religion of El Dorado and their hosts blushes, “Can there be two religions, then? I have always believed that we hold the religion of all mankind. We worship God from morning till night.”

Cacambo and Candide are preparing to meet the monarch and inquire as to protocol: should they kneel, grovel, put hands on the head or behind, lick the dust off the floor? “’The custom is,’ said the lord-in-waiting, ‘to embrace the King and kiss him on both cheeks.’” One cannot help but notice the near direct quote and implication of Psalm 2 (note verse 12). Yet, our pilgrims feel they cannot stay enjoy this Master and remain in this state of paradise and so must return to the world of violence and immorality. Candide plainly states that he cannot be happy without she whose lusts got him forcibly removed from the immaculate castle and he longs for his own home, so they leave El Dorado.

Once delivered from The City of Gold the travelers meet an escaped slave who has a leg and an arm cut off. The picture here is that the pleasures enjoyed in the world and by the world, come at the happy expense of others who are (un)willing to dedicate their lives to the cause. “Who has the best of the world?” becomes the rhetorical question that shapes unrealistic optimism and blind pessimism.

More situations that will not be discussed here (for space) seem to bring a reversal to the direction of the story. Candide seems to want to see the happy optimism of Dr. Pangloss’ at work in a world of happy people; but, he discovers through the Old Woman, Martin and the Count Pococurante that life is not that ethereal. Is it the mere child’s view of the world that Voltaire is trying to change, or is he a Scrooge that wants everyone to share misery? Martin suggests that we need to stop proving things and get to work, “for that is the only way to make life bearable.” Is life meant to consist of battle against boredom, vice and necessity, as the Turkish farmer suggested; or is there something more?

Perhaps the heart of “Candide” is just what satire shows: a half glass of water. Optimism, pessimism, religion, philosophy, hedonism, even wealth and poverty fail because the hearts of men are evil. Voltaire wants desperately to rise above being man and when he runs into the barrier of truth, he recoils because truth exists where he does not want to find it: outside himself.

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