- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
In a literary career spanning the years of the Regency and the reign of Louis XV, François-Marie Arouet, dit Voltaire (1694–1778), produced a vast body of work ranging from the early verse tragedies and epic poetry to the later historiography and philosophy. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1746 and certainly has a claim to being the preeminent French man of letters of his generation. It is somewhat surprising, then, given his enormous literary output and standing, that today Voltaire's reputation rests almost entirely—with the notable exception of the Lettres philosophiques (1734) and the correspondence—on the philosophical contes of his final creative phase, among which Candide ou l'optimisme (1759) is now the most highly regarded.
Indeed, that Voltaire's reputation has not been impaired by posterity's disregard for so much of his work, that an enduring reputation could be founded on a story like Candide, requires some explanation. For the conte is a lightweight genre, one of the slightest forms of prose narrative. Without the status of the nouvelle or the roman, it resembles a short story but with the specific purpose of relating an anecdote or adventure primarily for amusement. The closest English equivalent to the conte would be the "tale." Moreover, Candide itself is a strange combination of the ideological and the personal. On the one hand, it is an impassioned and frequently scathing response to contemporary historical events (the Seven Years' War), natural catastrophes (the Lisbon earthquake of 1755), religious sectarianism and philosophical trends, all of which might seem to have little but antiquarian interest today. On the other hand, the story is a tissue of more or less disguised references to the author's own personal troubles: his financial concerns and private animosities such as the quarrels with Frederick the Great and the head of the Berlin Academy of Science, Maupertuis; the critic Elie Fréron; and a host of forgotten writers. Seemingly most damaging of all to the work's merit is the convincing argument that in satirizing the philosophical optimism of Leibniz's Théodicée (1710), Voltaire simplifies, even fails to grasp, the arguments against which he rails. It is now generally accepted that in Candide Voltaire characterizes and caricatures philosophical optimism—the belief that the universe is organized according to a preestablished harmonious plan—in a form and a vocabulary that did not belong to Leibniz at all, but to Christian Wolff, the popularizer of Leibniz, and the English writers Bolingbroke and Alexander Pope.
How, then, can the enduring popularity and importance of Candide be accounted for? The tale is undoubtedly a good yarn, if at the same time a parody of that form. The plot takes the reader across continents, through numerous adventures (the French word aventure appears time and again in the story), and contains several tales within tales. Yet, for all the trappings of a tale, Candide is primarily a vehicle for ideas. It is by no means a psychological drama or a mere action adventure. The education of the hero bears little resemblance to the kind of education to be found later in the Bildungsroman. The work's main theme, that this is clearly not the best of all possible worlds, is not so much developed as merely reiterated. In accordance with this thematic simplicity, the story has a simple structure. Cast from an earthly paradise (the country residence of Baron Thunder-Ten-Tronckh), the young Candide is subjected to a deliberately ridiculous concatenation of horrors in the corrupt world. He endures war, or rather sheer carnage, the Lisbon earthquake and the Inquisition. At the center of the story is the peaceful, instructive interlude in Eldorado, a kind of paradise regained, although one that cannot be permanent. Thrown back into the world, though this time by choice, Candide does not suffer any further hardships of the kind that pepper the first half of the book. Rather, he experiences the appalling tedium of life. (Voltaire is one of the first French writers to depict in fiction the distinctly modern psychological condition of boredom.) The final "paradise" of the small farm in Turkey, based in part on Voltaire's own estate at Ferney, is a place where, though things are by no means ideal, illusions about the nature of human existence have been recognized for what they are and a pragmatic and reasoned attempt is made to create a tolerable life through cooperative labor. This final world is limited in its aspirations and expectations. It is, however, free from the kind of fanaticism, religious or secular, that prevails throughout the rest of the world that Candide creates.
The work is, then, a fable in which Voltaire argues for an enlightened attitude toward both religious and secular institutions, for a stripping away of all illusory forms of understanding, justification and consolation. It advocates a world view grounded in and chastened by the experience of a harsh, unaccommodating reality. The reiterated exhortation that one must travel before forming judgments is essentially a rebuttal of any philosophy that is not based upon empirical, verifiable data.
On the most general level, what accounts for the enduring success of Candide is that, despite the drastic simplifications, even misrepresentations, of the arguments of others, the satire addresses in the most direct and uncompromising way an issue that has remained as pertinent and as unresolved as it was in 1758: the origin and place of evil in the world, and how a world view based on reason can account for, if not neutralize, irrationality. Candide reveals a Voltaire deeply suspicious of the implications of the traditional Christian doctrine of the fall and the Leibnizian contention that evil is only evil when surveyed from the partial, erring human perspective. Both doctrines, according to Voltaire, result in the wholly unacceptable attitude toward life expressed most succinctly in Alexander Pope's Essay on Man (1733–34):
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right. [I, 289–294]
This is a doctrine to which Voltaire adamantly refuses his consent because it leaves no place for human progress, moral or technical.
For the most part, the reader does not require any real familiarity with Leibniz or, for that matter, with the historical and biographical material underlying the story to appreciate Candide's message or enjoy its wit. Although the present edition does provide rudimentary explanations for historical and biographical allusions in the text, it should be borne in mind that the measure of Voltaire's success in Candide is to have created a work that achieves its ends independently of the historical, philosophical and biographical material out of which it was generated. By no means presupposing a sophisticated acquaintance with specific philosophical arguments, it calls only for an awareness of the human predicament, with which the most unphilosophical mind might sympathize. The success or failure of Candide as a comic fable with a serious moral purpose depends finally on whether or not Voltaire's manner of holding horror up for ridicule enables one to master that horror.
Although a vehicle for serious ideas, the work has a distinctly comic-book form that goes beyond the usual demands of satirical writing. In this respect there is no kinship between Voltaire and, for example, Swift. That no real attempt is made in Candide to create characters with any psychological depth or to develop complex themes is suggested even by the characters' names. Nothing stands in the way of translating into English many of the proper names Voltaire assigns to his characters. Indeed, the characters might more accurately be described as ciphers for various positions that can be taken toward existence. These positions range from outright optimism (Pangloss) to thoroughgoing pessimism (Martin). The name of the eponymous hero of the conte translates to the English "candid," with all the connotations that word has in English. The young Candide sets out on his adventures as a naïf, unacquainted with moral evil (mal moral ) and physical evil or hardship (mal physique ). He is unsullied by experience, he is innocent and artless. Voltaire never quite equates this naivety with stupidity or insanity. Rather, it is the state in which the mind exists while still in an earthly paradise, sheltered from experience. And, for the most part, although Voltaire's hero passes through the most inconceivable series of calamities during his adventures, he remains unscathed by them, true to his name. He is much like a cardboard cutout that keeps popping up against all the odds. The Candide at the end of the tale is chastened, perhaps, wiser to the extent that he is more practical. He is no longer given to the superlatives (Voltaire's linguistic register for idealism) that come one on top of another throughout the text. The representative of untempered philosophical optimism, which is depicted as sheer moral blindness, is Candide's tutor, Pangloss. This name compounds the Greek pan (all) and glossa (tongue). Not only does this compound suggest, ironically, as the story shows, universal knowledge, it also clearly implies logorrhea and, in effect, an immoral proclivity for words and arguments when what is required is rational action. Among the other translatable proper names is that of the Venetian senator, Pococurante ("little caring," "caring for little"). He is a critic ad nauseam of all Western aesthetic culture.
Much of Voltaire's wit is directed against absurdities and unwarranted pretensions reflected in language. In particular, he delights in ridiculing the German language. In part, this is no doubt because it was the language of Frederick the Great, from whom he was alienated by 1758. But Voltaire is also playing up to a popular view of the time that the German language was barbarous. Thus, his baron is Thunder-Ten-Tronckh, and the only named Westphalian town is Waldberghoff-Trarbk-Dikdorff. These are less names than garbled masses of guttural consonants and top-heavy compounds.
On a stylistic level, Candide certainly demonstrates Voltaire's epigrammatic wit at its most acerbic and concentrated. The prose is clear and deliberate, shifting repeatedly between the past and historical present tenses,1 omitting connectives, moving with the rhythm of a series of one-liners delivered with the consummate artistry of an accomplished stand-up comedian. The overall pace of the story is dictated by shifts between extended narrative monologue and snappy dialogue. Vocabulary and syntactical forms are fairly limited.
The textual history of Candide does require brief mention. The story was originally published in January 1759 as an anonymous French translation from the German of a certain Doctor Ralph. The original 1759 text was somewhat shorter than the version reprinted here. In 1761 Voltaire interpolated an extended passage (which he described as "the additions found in the doctor's pocket when he died") in Chapter XXII. This interpolation was an extension of the section describing Candide's residence in Paris and included an attack on the critic Elie Fréron and the description of Candide's visit to the theater and to the home of the Marquise de Parolignac. A few other short interpolations by Voltaire in Chapter XXVI are generally omitted from modern editions of Candide on the ground that they give rise to inconsistencies with the 1759 text. These brief passages have, following the common editorial practice, been omitted here.
I would like to thank Stanley Appelbaum for his valuable suggestions in the preparation of this translation.
Excerpted from Voltaire Candide by Shane Weller. Copyright © 1993 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of DOVER PUBLICATIONS, INC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted August 30, 2009
No text was provided for this review.