Voltaire: Candide (nor Optimism)
As a stand up comedian, Steve Martin had a bit in which he would muse about what a great prank it would be to raise a child and teach them to “talk wrong”, with the hilarious result being that the child would arrive for the first day of school speaking gibberish. The joke is funny because it strikes a nerve: education really is closely tied to a child’s personal development; teaching them wrong can do them quite a bit of damage.
The same touched nerve accounts in part for why Voltaire’s story Candide is still so funny, even though most of us remember next to nothing about Liebniz (monands, right?) who we all know was the target of the story- it’s the damage done by a young man’s commitment to what his philosophical tutor has taught him about evil: it got into the world because God has a need for it. The evils we suffer only seem that way because our understanding is limited. As everyone who has read the story remembers, Candide believes this is thus the best of all possible worlds- because Doctor Pangloss told him so.
Everything bad that could possibly happen to Candide does, of course, and his friends Pangloss and the lovely Cunegonde are exposed to more harm than SouthPark’s hapless Kenny. Voltaire is unsparing in portraying pre-modern Europe, the Americas, and the Levant as something akin to Goya’s war prints done for Mad Magazine. One appeal of the story for us might be that it provides the comforting sense that the past as recently as the eighteenth century really was terrible- maybe ours isn’t the best of all possible worlds either, but it’s the best it’s ever been. Now please pass the ice cream.
Of course, the other nerve-touching thing about the story is that all of Candide’s thought and theorizing brings him nothing but trouble. While he’s busy proving his philosophical theorems, he nearly gets killed in the wars of religion, hanged in an auto–da–fé, enslaved by pirates, and goes through countless other catastrophes. The one time in the story that he “turns off his brain” and simply floats aimlessly down a river, he winds up in El Dorado, a utopia.
Is Voltaire, the philosophe, saying that philosophy causes nothing but trouble in this life? The famous conclusion, in which Candide decides that we must all cultivate our own gardens, fits at once the safe version of the Enlightenment as “thinking for yourself”; on the other hand, Voltaire seems to be saying we should keep our heads down and not think too hard about the nature of life; or even that our reason just serves to mask the real nature of existence. This is why the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was a problem for the Enlightened as well as the religious: it shook the belief that there was any common purpose linking man and the natural world that reason could suss out- a reasonable inference from Newton. Reason creates a picture of order than nature frustrates. In a world of such calamities, it’s a wonder Candide can hear himself think at all.
W.C. Fields once said that, if you want to tell people the truth, you have to make them laugh while doing so, or else they’ll try to kill you. With satire, we laugh at the exaggeration that things are much worse than we know they are, but it is nervous laughter of the sort that makes characters in old comedies fretfully loosen their ties – we can only hope the kernel of truth is a small one so it’ll go down easier.