Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Candide by Voltaire

Source of book: I own this. 

This is one of those books that I probably should have read years ago. We read about it in high school, but I don’t think we read any excerpts. (Probably too racy for a Fundie curriculum...those crazy French authors!) I also didn’t own a copy until recently. I picked up a lovely hardback Easton Press edition at a recent library sale, which gave me the chance to read it. 

First published in 1759, Candide caused controversy and scandal from the outset. Although it was widely known that Voltaire wrote it, he used a pseudonym for plausible deniability. His publishers weren’t so lucky, and were hounded and prosecuted and bankrupted for their pains. Ah, the good old days, when government censorship was inescapable. (Actually, Candide was indeed Banned In Boston in 1929.) As is often the case with censorship, this only increased the book’s popularity, and it became one of the most widely read and translated works of its era. 

Candide was influenced by Jonathan Swift’s earlier work, Gulliver’s Travels, as well as other picaresque novels, travelogues, and coming-of-age stories of the time. The title character (whose name is a bit of a pun, like the other characters) grows up in relative luxury, raised by a nobleman, and taught by Dr. Pangloss, who subscribes to Leibniz’ philosophy that we live in the best of all possible worlds. When Candide tries some kissing on the baron’s daughter, he is evicted, and begins a series of tragic and ludicrous adventures, becoming more and more disillusioned. 

The story itself is highly unrealistic, shockingly bloody (although few actually end up dying like we think they have), and deliciously satirical. Voltaire takes on pretty much every institution of his time, but also a lot of beliefs - and the problem of evil. Religion, of course, is thoroughly skewered, which is one reason it was banned. But also, governments, the military, philosophers, and society get solid digs throughout. Hypocrisy isn’t hard to find, of course. 

Regular readers of English Victorian literature like myself tend to find French writers a bit...racy. The thing of it is that they assume a certain degree of female promiscuity as normal, and don’t have the obsession with virginity that English and American writers seem to. This book plays sex for laughs and horror. The main female character, Cunegonde, is raped in the second chapter, is kept as a mistress by both a Jew and a priest at the same time (shocking enough at the time), becomes the mistress of a Governor in South America, then a sex slave to a pirate, and finally ends up as the nagging wife of Candide. But at least she becomes a good cook. (It is hard to explain how funny that line is without the context.) 

The book is both very much of its time, yet with timeless satire. I can’t say all of it has aged well - the bit about the women taking monkeys as lovers feels like a racist jab at indigenous peoples, for example. But much more feels contemporary. After all, Voltaire points out the tendency of powerful men to rape and abuse women, or at least use and discard them. Greed and jealousy haven’t gone away either, nor has ludicrous class chauvinism. Human nature is still human nature. 

Speaking of that, Candide is forced into the Bulgarian military, but chickens out and hides during the brutal battle. Voltaire’s description of the aftereffects of the battle are unfortunately spot on:

He clambered over heaps of dead and dying men and reach a neighboring village, which was in ashes; it was an Abare village, which the Bulgarians had burned in accordance with international law. Here, old men dazed with blows watched the dying agonies of their murdered wives who clutched their children to their bleeding breasts; there, disemboweled girls who had been made to satisfy the natural appetites of heroes gasped their last sighs; others, half-burned, begged to be put to death. Brains were scattered on the ground among dismembered arms and legs.

As he flees this horror, he comes across a village that belongs to the other side, and the same thing was done by them. At this point, he is still clinging to the “this is the best of all possible worlds” philosophy, but it is getting harder. 

Soon afterward, Candide is reunited with Pangloss, who relates the sad fates of the baron and his household. (Although it turns out they aren’t all dead…) Pangloss looks like hell, and confesses that when Candide caught him “giving a lesson in experimental physics” to the maid, he caught syphilis. 

“My dear Candide! You remember Paquette, the maid-servant of our august Baroness; in her arms I enjoyed the delights of Paradise which have produced the tortures of Hell by which you see I am devoured; she was infected and perhaps is dead. Paquette received this present from a most learned monk, who had it from the source; for he received it from an old countess, who had it from a cavalry captain, who owed it to a marchioness, who derived it from a page, who had received it from a Jesuit, who, when a novice, had it in direct line from one of the companions of Christopher Columbus.” 

Voltaire is actually correct about this: it is generally agreed that Columbus’ crew brought syphilis back from the New World with them. But notice how many unspoken truths Voltaire puts in this one statement. Pangloss taking advantage of his position to seduce a maid, who had previously slept with a monk, who also did it with a countess. The randy countess did it with both clergy and military; the soldier was irresistible to multiple rich women, one of whom also had the hots for young boys. (A page would be from ages 7-14, typically.) That boy was infected after being raped by a priest, who got it by a chain back to Columbus. That’s a lot of morally and/or socially unacceptable relationships that were widely known to exist, but were not always talked about in public. 

Despite all this, Pangloss continues to cling to his philosophy. 

“It was all indispensable, and private misfortunes make the public good, so that the more private misfortunes there are, the more everything is well.” 

If you think this sounds a bit like Social Darwinism (which would come into vogue a century later), you are right. 

Candide is, through improbably circumstances, reunited with Cunegonde, only to find that she is dependent on selling her body to the Jewish merchant and the Inquisitor on alternating days. They both show up, and, jealous of finding Cunegonde in the presence of another man, try to kill Candide, who kills them instead in self defense. Cunegonde marvels that Candide, who is both mild mannered and incompetent with a sword, manages this. 

“My dear young lady,” replied Candide, “when a man is in love, jealous, and has been flogged by the Inquisition, he is beside himself.” 

That’s a laugh out loud line, and wouldn’t be entirely out of place in The Princess Bride. 

One of the watercolor illustrations from my Easton Press edition of the book, by Sylvain Sauvage.
There is a decent amount of gratuitous boobage, but what do you expect from a French artist?

The party flees to South America, where they end up in Paraguay. Candide’s servant, Cacambo (the most rational person in this crazy book), spent time there, and explains how things are. 

“Their government is a most admirable thing. The kingdom is already more than three hundred leagues in diameter and is divided into thirty provinces. Los Padres have everything and the people have nothing; ‘tis the masterpiece of reason and justice. For my part, I know nothing so divine as Los Padres who here make war on the Kings of Spain and Portugal and in Europe act as their confessors; who here kill Spaniards and at Madrid send them to Heaven; all this delights me…” 

Eventually, Candide meets another philosopher, Martin, who is the opposite of Pangloss. Martin is cynical and pessimistic about everything, which makes him as mockable as Pangloss. Here are a couple of exchanges:

“But to what end was this world formed?” said Candide.
“To infuriate us,” replied Martin.

I am reminded of the famous line from The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory mentioned, which states that this has already happened.

Later in the conversation, the naive Candide asks another question:

“Do you think,” said Candide, “that men have always massacred each other, as they do today? Have they always been liars, cheats, traitors, brigands, weak, flighty, cowardly, envious, gluttonous, drunken, grasping, and vicious, bloody, backbiting, debauched, fanatical, hypocritical and silly?”
“Do you think,” said Martin, “that sparrow-hawks have always eaten the pigeons they came across?”
“Yes, of course,” said Candide.
“Well,” said Martin, “if sparrow-hawks have always possessed the same nature, why should you expect men to change theirs?”

Near the end, Candide and Martin are the guests of Pococurante, a rich epicurean who is a critic of everything. Martin is just cynical, but Pococurante finds his “excellent taste” prevents him from enjoying nearly everything. After dismissing the classics of the time as mostly rubbish, Pococurante gives away his game:

“Fools admire everything in a celebrated author. I only read to please myself, and I only like what suits me.” 

I know a few people like that. Nothing against reading for fun - hey, I do it all the time! But to go through life unchallenged, only dabbling in what you already know and like, seems a tragedy. 

After all these crazy adventures, Pangloss, Candide, Martin, Cunegonde, and a few others they have picked up on the way, settle down on a bit of land in a sort of commune, and find some bit of contentment, if not exactly happiness. Martin urges everyone to work without arguing as that is the only way life will be endurable. Pangloss, despite admitting that he didn’t actually believe his own optimism, keeps on preaching it, claiming that all the horrors of the past were necessary for their current situation. Candide, finally older and wiser, ends the book by saying:

“‘Tis well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our gardens.” 

Candide is unlike any other book I have read, I must say. While clearly in the 18th Century style, it’s short episodes and rapid-fire plot contrast with the more wordy and rambling style of Swift and others. The book is short, but covers a bewildering amount of ground. All the wit and satire happens in such a rapid-fire manner that you can’t just whip through it - you have to stop and savor it. In a way, I was reminded of Mark Twain, who also used unexpected twists, improbable events, and razor-sharp satire throughout his work. 


Update: I got busy and completely forgot that I needed to add music to this! 

Back in the day, when I was a rookie violinist with the BSO, we had these summer pops concerts outdoors in the heat. We got a full rehearsal and a quick run-through before the concert, and that was it. We played 1812 Overture at the end with fireworks and stuff. 

Anyway, because literally everyone besides my brother and me had played the stuff a gazillion times, we got handed our music before the first rehearsal (we had a shot at 1812 because our teacher gave us parts to work on), and had to sight read Bernstein's Candide Overture. 

Total flop sweat time. 

We managed to make it through without playing in the rests, at least. Now, it doesn't seem as terrifying as it did back then, but I still remember that feeling of panic. Welcome to the big league, kid...

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