I felt stuck for something to write today. This sent me running for the blogosphere, looking for material. I don’t want to use the internet and my fellow bloggers for material as a standard practice. I think that gets self-referential in a way, as though you’re spending all of your time in a hall of mirrors.
Yet, since my blog-reading days have been so few to date, there are still many things and perspectives out there which are new and intriguing to me. For example, how many blogs have you run across written by an African-American male who is Christian and a socialist with a strong background in historical scholarship? I’m sorry if that kind of stuff is old hat to you, but I think the internet has such a variety of people on it that it’s still worth exploring.
Another fellow, Jonathan Deamer, gave me the idea for my blog today: The 10 secrets of writing reviews that will keep readers coming back. He uses this idea in reviewing music CDs. I haven’t bought any new CDs lately (Elvis Costello’s “King of America” hardly counts) so I’d rather review one of my favorite books, “Candide” by Voltaire.
Candide is a short book (115 pages in my Crofts Classics edition) that takes on the question of how God as an all-powerful and all-knowing being still allow evil in the world. A popular answer to this was that this is the best of all possible worlds and that suffering, even suffering in individual cases, is part of the plan. During Voltaire’s time, most authorities would conclude that one serves God best by accepting one’s lot and not trying to change it.
We are introduced to Candide, the naive hero of our story, living in the castle of the Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia. He is believed to be the bastard son of the Baron’s sister and an honest gentleman in the area but whom the Baron’s sister would not marry due to his not having enough noble ancestors to suit the baroness.
When we are introduced to Doctor Pangloss, the tutor for the Baron’s children and Candide, we find that Voltaire is more zealous in his attacks on over-reaching pride and hypocrisy than even Holden Caulfield. Pangloss teaches “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology,” suggestive of some abstract nonsense far more criminal in nature than anything you were required to take as an undergrad in college.
We are also treated to an example of just how respectable the fine Doctor Pangloss really is. Mademoiselle Cunegonde (use your imagination with that name), the Baron’s daughter, is walking through a small wood near the castle when she sees, “Doctor Pangloss in the bushes, giving a lesson in experimental physics to her mother’s waiting maid, a very pretty and docile brunette. Mademoiselle Cunegonde…watched breathlessly the reiterated experiments…; she observed clearly the Doctor’s sufficient reason, the effects and the causes, and returned home very much excited, …filled with the desire of learning, reflecting that she might be the sufficient reason of young Candide and that he might be hers.”
These events are part of just the first three pages.
There are amazing adventures to be had. There are injustices and horrors committed against all sorts of people by all sorts of people. Catholics, Jews, Moors, Jesuits, French, Italians, English, Venetians, Turks all commit brutality without regret. Even Candide, our innocent, gets in on the action.
We meet characters who appear to die but return alive later in the book. Why? It’s just more fun that way. Plus, Voltaire gets to take a literary jab at the romance/adventure stories of the time in which mistaken identities and chance meetings always drive the plot along (sound like any bad television you’ve ever watched?). There are galley captains, Jesuits making a rebel republic in South America, the people of El Dorado, and an old woman with only one buttock.
Every chapter brings a new complication and another reminder of just why this is not the best of all possible worlds and infuriating examples of how a little bit of social reform could make a difference in people’s lives.
With all of the complications and events that drive the story we see that Candide struggles greatly to learn his lessons (the last time I reread the book, I could see George W. Bush in the part of Candide) and can never seem to look far enough ahead to avoid trouble. After an incident in which he saves Cunegonde, she asks him, “How does it happen that you, who were born so mild, should kill a Jew and a prelate in two minutes?” “My dear young lady,” replied Candide, “when a man is in love, jealous, and has been flogged by the Inquisition, he is beside himself.”
I think this book always has something to say to us today, especially with such simple-minded ideas being put forth in the public discourse. Ideas like, ‘we’re not sure if we want to tackle global warming, which will disastrously affect climate, agriculture, water availability, etc., because it might cost some businesses too much money.’ Who is being protected by such empty-headed thinking and stalling? I think that this kind of thinking is, at best, an example of the philosophy Voltaire attacked 250 years ago (the best of all possible worlds) and at worst a cynical use of this idea to cover for greed and the grab for political power. In either case, we citizens need to make more noise because this is not the best of all possible worlds for most of us.
Voltaire doesn’t offer any grand over-arching solutions to all of the problems in the book. He does offer a small, practical approach to life that could ease the trouble created by so many of the problems his characters encounter. In the end, it’s Candide who recommends, “…we should cultivate our own gardens.”