Monday, May 04, 2020

Voltaire: Candide (1758)

[L4 in that new publishing venture, the Penguin Classics, published in 1947.]

'Did Mr. Vanderdendur treat you like this?' asked Candide.
   'Yes, Sir,' said the negro, 'it's the custom. For clothing, we are given a pair of canvas drawers twice a year. Those of us who work in the factories and happen to catch a finger in the grindstone have a hand chopped off; if we try to escape, they cut off one leg. Both accidents happened to me. That's the price of your eating sugar in Europe. ...' (Candide, Ch XIX, translated by John Butt)

Sometimes people say -- I've probably said it myself -- that comedy tends to be conservative: from Aristophanes through Chaucer and Jane Austen and Scott to Wodehouse and Morecambe and Wise, it has guyed the pretension, egotism and hypocrisy of radicals and innovators, and invited us to laugh in shared defence of  the deep values of common existence as we know it.  Candide is a signal example of why that picture is too simple. It was a book that drastically changed our values, as much a maker of our modern outlook as Shakespeare's plays, and it's hilarious. Voltaire wasn't alone; I can see that Gil Blas and other picaresque novels had prepared the way; nevertheless Candide was a dizzying transformation.

Voltaire made sure that even those who only managed to read the first ten or twenty pages would still receive the book's main payloads. Candide begins like a train; here it is, about five pages in:

His new companions then asked him to accept a few shillings. Candide took them gratefully and wanted to give a receipt; but his offer was brushed aside, and they all sat down to table.
   'Are you not a devoted admirer . . .?' began one of the men in blue.
   'Indeed I am,' said Candide earnestly, 'I am a devoted admirer of Lady Cunégonde.'
   'No doubt,' replied the man; 'but what we want to know is whether you are a devoted admirer of the King of the Bulgars.'
   'Good Heavens, no!' said Candide, 'I've never seen him.'
   'Oh, but he is the most amiable of kings and we must drink his health.'
   'By all means, gentlemen,' replied Candide, and emptied his glass.
   'That's enough,' they cried. 'You are now his support and defender, and a Bulgar hero into the bargain,. Your fortune is made. Go where glory waits you.'
   And with that they clapped him in irons and hauled him off to the barracks . . .
   ... At the court martial he was graciously permitted to choose between being flogged thirty-six times by the whole regiment or having twelve bullets in his brain. It was useless to declare his belief in Free Will and say he wanted neither; he had to make his choice. So, exercising that divine gift called Liberty, he decided to run the gauntlet thirty-six times, and survived two floggings. . . .
   How Candide escaped from the Bulgars, and what happened to him afterwards   Those who have never seen two well-trained armies drawn up for battle, can have no idea of the beauty and brilliance of the display. Bugles, fifes, oboes, drums, and salvoes of artillery produced such a harmony as Hell itself could not rival. The opening barrage destroyed about six thousand men on each side. Rifle-fire which followed rid this best of worlds of about nine or ten thousand villains who infested its surface. Finally the bayonet provided 'sufficient reason' for the death of several thousand more. The total casualties amounted to about thirty thousand. Candide trembled like a philosopher, and hid himself as best he could during this heroic butchery.
   When all was over and the rival kings were celebrating their victory with Te Deums in their respective camps, Candide decided to find somewhere else to pursue his reasoning into cause and effect. He picked his way over piles of dead and dying, and reached a neighbouring village on the Abar side of the border. It was now no more than a smoking ruin, for the Bulgars had burned it to the ground in accordance with the terms of international law. Old men, crippled with wounds, watched helplessly the death-throes of their butchered women-folk, who still clasped their children to their bloodstained breasts. Girls who had satisfied the appetites of several heroes lay disembowelled in their last agonies. . .
   Candide made off as quickly as he could to another village. This was in Bulgar territory, and had been treated in the same way by Abar heroes . . .

Voltaire is talking about the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) -- though it had only been a two years' war when he wrote Candide. Winston Churchill described it as the first "world war". Britain was its major beneficiary, especially in terms of colonial possessions, thus accelerating the export of misery to other lands. (One outcome of the war, arguably, is that most Americans speak English rather than French.)

The striking internationalism of Candide was an essential response to a world that was changing; the furious pace of the narrative is literature trying to catch up with reality.


Candide wouldn't work so brilliantly if it didn't continuously send itself up. Voltaire understood the lesson in negotiation about how you mustn't back people into a corner, leave them with no dignified way to embrace the outcome. Certainly his portrait of the world is sufficient reproof to the facile "optimism" of Dr. Pangloss, that we live in "this best of all possible worlds". But despite numerous horrific experiences and apparently certain deaths, Candide and his little circle absurdly survive to the end of this roller-coaster, neither dead nor traumatized. Candide's ever-resourceful servant Cacambo doesn't betray him (despite Voltaire's broad wink to the reader in Ch XIX). Candide gains and loses incredible wealth, but he never loses everything, or not for very long anyway. Is it the best of all possible worlds after all? Voltaire laughs as much at the follies of literary convention as at the follies of the world.


As I read through Sa'di, I'm trying to confirm my hunch that the wise conclusions of Candide's final chapter were inspired by the Persian author that Voltaire so admired.


'By the way,' said Candide, 'do you agree with what they say in that big book the captain has, that the earth was originally all sea?'
   'I no more believe it,' said Martin, 'than I believe all the other delirious ravings that are published from time to time.'
   'But what was this world created for?' said Candide.
   'To drive us mad,' replied Martin.
   'You remember that story I told you,' continued Candide, 'about the love of those two Oreillon girls for their monkeys. Doesn't that astonish you?'
   'Not at all,' said Martin. 'I don't see anything strange in an infatuation like that. I have seen so many extraordinary things, that nothing is extraordinary any longer.'
   'Do you think,' said Candide, '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, fanatic, hypocritical, and stupid?'
   'Do you think,' said Martin, 'that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they could find them?'
   'Of course I do,' said Candide.
   'Well,' said Martin, 'if hawks have always had the same character, why should you suppose that men have changed theirs?'
   'Oh, but there's a great difference,' said Candide; 'for Free Will . . .'
   They were still talking when the ship reached Bordeaux.     (Ch XXI)



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