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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

"Candide" by Voltaire

Is it a (picaresque) novel? Is it a work of philosophy. This best-selling and highly influential work by French savant and philosophe Voltaire set out to ridicule the philosophy of Optimism, formulated by Liebnitz, which suggested that because God is good therefore all is for the best. Voltaire, writing in 1759, four years after the Lisbon earthquake destroyed 85% of Lisbon's buildings and killed about 15% of its inhabitants, many of them in church celebrating All Saints' Day; the earthquake is referenced in the book: “The sea boiled up in the harbour and broke the ships which lay at anchor. Whirlwinds of flame and ashes covered the streets and squares. Houses came crashing down. Roofs toppled onto their foundations, and the foundations crumbled. Thirty thousand men, women and children were crushed to death under the ruins.” (Ch 5). Also referenced under rather greater disguise was the Seven Years War which had started shortyly before the book was published. Voltaire's greatest creation was Dr Pangloss who repeatedly insists that "all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds" despite being confronted with tragedy and calamity.

But to talk about philosophy makes the book sound difficult and serious. In fact it is short, easy to read and often farcically comic. Characters frequently come to sticky ends, their deaths clear and evidenced, and then reappear later; there is a convoluted and highly improbably narrative which 'explains' how they escaped.

Fundamentally this is a bildungsroman following the adventures of the young Candide who "combined sound judgement with unaffected simplicity.” (Ch 1), cast out of a paradisical garden and forced to wander the world, usually with companions, always seeking to be reunited with the love of his life, Cunegonde. He suffers war, observing the rape and murder of civilians and gets enlisted in both the opposing armies. He is in Lisbon with Pangloss when the earthquake strikes. Pangloss is subsequently executed by the Inquisition; Candide is 'only' flogged. He murders the Grand Inquisitor and then travels across the Atlantic (with Cunegonde with whom he has been reunited despite reports of her death) to put down a Jesuit rebellion in Paraguay. There, the governor is determined to have Cunegonde as a mistress and Candide has to fo a runner with his servant Cacambo. They go the the Jesuits where they discover that the Father-Provincial is Cunegonde's supposedly-dead (of course) brother. He objects that Candide is insufficiently aristocratic to marry his sister, they fight, Candide kills him, and Candide and Cacambo steal some horses and ride off. They are captured by cannibalistic savages who release them on discovering that Candide has killed a Jesuit. They have a difficult journey through the wilderness but arrive in El Dorado. The streets are literally cobbled with nuggets of gold and there are precious stones all over the place. The King gives them untold riches and they travel away from Eldorado. Candide then sends Cacambo back to Buenos Aires to kidnap Cunegonde from the governor while Candide will travel to Venice and wait for them. But Candide is cheated by the captain of the ship who sails off as soon as all the treasure is on board and has to take passage for Bordeaux with a new companion called Martin who is as pessimistic as Pangloss was optimistic. Arriving in France he goes to Paris and then, seeking the elusive Cacambo and Cunegonde, to England (but refuses to set foot in that country) and so to Venice. Everyone there professes to be miserable. They are reunited with Cacambo and travel to Turkey.  En route they discover Pangloss (his execution by the Inquisition was botched) and Cunegonde's brother (the one who became a Jesuit and was killed by Candide but who actually recovered from his wounds) as galley slaves; Candide pays for them to be freed. Finally he discovers Cunegonde but she is now hideously ugly. Nevertheless the newly wealthy Candide proposes to free her (she too is a slave) and marry her but he can't do the latter becayse her brother (also freed by Candide) still objects that Candide is not aristocratic. They end up (most of them) working on a small-holding that Candidfe has bought. Back in the garden. As Candide concludes: “Oui, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.” (Ch 30, last words)

You couldn't make it up. But Voltaire did.

The plot is farce and Candide's companions are, if anything, even more farcical:
  • Candide's tutor is Dr Pangloss: “He proved incontestably that there is no effect without a cause, and that this is the best of all possible worlds ... our noses were made to carry spectacles, so we have spectacles. ... pigs were made to be eaten ... all is for the best.” (Ch 1) When Pangloss catches syphilis, we are told: “He had had it from an old countess, who had had it from a cavalry officer, who was indebted for it to a marchioness. She took it from her page, and he had received it from a Jesuit, who while still a novice, had had it in direct line from one of the companions of Christopher Columbus.” (Ch 4)
  • The Old Woman is repeatedly raped, except by the eunuch, and enslaved; she even has a buttock removed. She would have killed herself but she was too much in love with life. “Persuade every passenger to tell you his story, and if you even find one who has not cursed his life and told himself that he is the most miserable man alive, you can throw me into the sea head first.” (Ch 12)
  • The Baron (Cunegonde's brother) who became a Jesuit because “You know ...what a good-looking boy I was: well, I grew up more handsome still, and the ... the father superior of the house took a fancy to me.” (Ch 15) and later, in Turkey, was sentenced to the galleys because “I met a handsome young lad who was one of the Sultan’s pages. It was very hot, and the young man wanted to bathe, so I took the opportunity of bathing to. I did not know that it was a capital offence for a Christian to be found naked with a young Mussulman.” (Ch 28)
  • Martin is the epitome of gloom: “When I survey this globe, or rather this globule, I am forced to the conclusion that God has abandoned it to some mischievous power ... I have scarcely seen a town which does not seek the ruin of a neighbouring town, not a family that does not wish to exterminate another family. You will find that the weak always detest the strong and cringe before them, and that the strong treat them like so many sheep to be sold for their meat and wool. A million regimented assassins surge from one end of Europe to the other, earning their living by committing murder and brigandage in strictest discipline, because they have no more honest livelihood; and in those towns which seem to enjoy the blessings of peace and where the arts flourish, men suffer more from envy, cares, and anxiety than a besieged town suffers from the scourges of war ... I am forced to believe man's origin is evil.” (Ch 20)
Other great moments:
  • Those who have never see 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.” (Ch 3)
  • He reached a neighbouring village ... 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.” (Ch 3)
  • "I have had to trample on the crucifix four times in various trips I’ve been to Japan. I’m not the man for your Universal Reason." (Ch 5)
  • I know how the Reverend fathers govern ... There are thirty provinces in their kingdom, and it is more than three hundred leagues across. The Reverend father own the whole lot, and the people own nothing: that's what I call a masterpiece of reason and justice.” (Ch 14)
  • Why should you find it so strange that in some parts of the world monkeys obtain ladies’ favours? They are partly human, just as I am partly Spanish.”  (Ch 16)
  • The laws of nature teach us to kill our fellow creatures, and that is what happens in every corner of the earth.” (Ch 16)
  • Do you mean to say you have no monks teaching and disputing, governing and intriguing, and having people burned if they don't subscribe to their opinions?” (Ch 18)
  • For clothing, we are giving 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. ... Dogs, monkeys, and parrots are much less miserable than we are. The Dutch fetishes, who converted me, tell me every Sunday that we are all children of Adam, black and white alike. I am no genealogist; but if these preachers speak the truth, we must all be cousins. Now, you will surely agree that relations could not be treated more horribly.” (ch 19)
  • When, in a sea battle, the ship of the Dutch pirate who robbed Candide is sunk. Candide observes that “crime is sometimes punished” because the Dutch pirate had drowned. Martin replies “why should the passengers have perished too? God has punished a scoundrel, but the devil has drowned the rest.” (Ch 20)
  • Wherever you go in France, you will find that the three chief occupations are making love, backbiting, and talking nonsense.” (Ch 21)
  • I know Paris ... It's chaos, a mob of people all out for pleasure, and scarcely a soul who finds it. ... I am told that there are some people in that city noted for their good manners; I wish I could think so.”  (Ch 21)
  • ‘But what was this world created for?’ ... ‘ To drive us mad’” (Ch 21)
  • Do you think ... that men have always ... being false, cozening, faithless, ungrateful, thieving, weak, inconstant, mean-spirited, envious, greedy, drunken, miserly, ambitious, bloody, slanderous, debauched, fanatic, hypocritical, and stupid?” (Ch 21)
  • “Imagine every possible contradiction and inconsistency, and you will find them in the government, the law-courts. The churches, and in the whole life of this absurd nation.” (Ch 22)
  • He’s an evil-minded fellow ... who earns his living by damning every play and every book. He hates successful writers, just as eunuchs hate successful lovers. He is one of those snakes of literature who feed on dirt and venom. He’s ... a journalist.” (Ch 22)
  • dans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.” In this country it is good to kill, from time to time, an admiral to encourage the others. (Ch 23)
  • What a genius this Pococurante is! Nothing can please him.” (Ch 25)
  • Work banishes those three great evils, boredom, vice, and poverty.” (Ch 30)

A classic work of philosophy, tremendously influential. It's view of the Problem of Evil (why did God allow people to die in the Lisbon earthquake?) was perhaps when the Enlightenment started along the road towards atheism and is responsible for our modern largely godless society. It's depiction of priests as mercenary and lustful was highly influential in the abolition of religious houses during the French revolution.

But more than that, for those who like their humour on the ridiculous side, it is hilarious.

And it isn't difficult to read! Have a go.

October 2020


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