Saturday of Book Reviewing – Voltaire’s Candide

My first impression of this classic novel was, embarrassingly enough: “How the heck do I say the title??” I hadn’t even opened the book yet, and already I had questions. Seems like a fantastic start if you ask me.

Now possible options were two – I was fairly certain the title would either be pronounced like ‘Candid’ as in to speak the truth frankly OR like ‘Candied’ as in sugar coated and delicious. After all, Voltaire was French, I needed to mind my American vowel sound bias here. As I read through the novel, I rapidly come to the conclusion that either would be perfectly suitable for our protagonist. For those of you immediately calling in to question the accuracy of dubbing a grown man ‘candied’, please allow me to elaborate.
You see, Candide is sweet. Not in flavor obviously, but in demeanor. More over? He’s flashy in his innocent like a brightly colored candy. But much like candy, this thin coating, this outward sweetness, is unhealthy. He gets himself into all kinds of trouble a more grounded man would’ve avoided.
Either version of his name is fitting… aka I still don’t know the right way to say it. No one I work with had read it before and now that I’ve considered both options, I’m slightly attached to my ignorance – I like thinking it’s both.

We haven’t even gotten to the story yet! And… We won’t for a bit longer. Sorry. I wanted to share a couple quirky notes from the introductory section of my version of the novel by Andre Maurois first.

‘Nearly all his letters ended with the famous formula: “Ecrasons L’infame” – “We must crush the vile thing” – or, as he wrote it with ingenuous caution, “Ecr. L’inf.” What was the vile thing? Religion? The Church? To be more exact, it was Superstition.’ – pg.4

And

‘A theist in name, a humanist in fact’ – pg. 6

Amazing! Perhaps as I write more about my journey away from structured faith, I shall borrow these mottos in his honor. These are important points to make in this arena; the fact that it’s not about the religion itself, or the people, or the rituals. It’s about superstition, about the fear that drives people to those things. The feeling over fact. Hell, the choosing of feeling and blind faith over even the attempt at finding out facts that may be unpleasant.

Ok, Tim Minchin is hilarious, but enough of that distraction! Moving on!

“Therefore, those who have maintained that all is well have been talking nonsense: they should have maintained that all is for the best.”
– Pangloss, pg. 18

With this kind of crazy optimist as a teacher, Candied Candide may be doomed to be devoured or go sour. It’s all well to think well of the world, but, geez, this type of willful avoidance of reality will get you killed. Also? It’s annoying. There really does have to be a balance, between optimism and cynicism, to get anything accomplished. There’s a reason ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst’ is so often spoken, don’t you think?

“Men,” he said, “must have corrupted nature a little, because they weren’t born wolves, yet they’ve become wolves.”
– John the Anabaptist, pg.27

Finally, someone with more sense. Moving past my initial, instinctual impulse to defend wolves against humanity’s slings and arrows, I find myself both relating to, and rallying against, this type of thinking. How contradictory. If we don’t have violent urges from birth, then it cannot be nature, it must be nurture; our environment shaping us. But how, without the initial natural will to so change, could we pervert our environment enough to corrupt nature thus? And yet, I agree with the end result: men have turned themselves savage. A type of savage most assuredly unique to us, the thinking animal.
Somehow, I don’t think it’s our corrupted nature that’s the issue so much as its flexibility and ease of corruption. We are weak. It isn’t that we are wolves, it is that we are vermin, reckless scavengers. We didn’t corrupt nature, we simply took the road of least resistance…

Hmmm seems as though everyone Candide meets as he continues along his quest gets progressively more cynical…

“I’ve wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but I still love life. That ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most pernicious inclinations. What could be more stupid than to persist in carrying a burden that we constantly want to cast off, to hold our existence in horror, yet cling to it nonetheless, to fondle the serpent that devours us, until it has eaten our hearts?”
– the old woman, pg. 49

‘Eaten our heart.’ Interesting phrasing, yeah? Loving life until it has taken our last breath or, our ‘heart’ less literally, as in our ability to be kind, to feel, to care. Life, the greatest of all burdens, either killing us outright or turning us cruel. This is a far leap from Pangloss’ personal philosophy, made even more fascinatingly dark by the juxtaposition. Burdens are another double-edged blade in her comment; for a burden may weigh you down, but at least that means you have something worth carrying.
I wonder if there are any who escape this twisted love affair with life. Perhaps only those who die young and beautiful.

“What’s optimism?” asked Cacambo.
“Alas,” said Candide, “it’s a mania for insisting that everything is all right when everything is going wrong.”
– pg. 73

Whoa. Candide finally hit a turning point in perspective and it is a complete 180. It says something powerful about him that it took misfortune befalling another to change his mind, when all the terrors he personally suffered did little to so sway him.
Out of context, this quote isn’t nearly as poignant as it is in.

“Do you believe,” said Candide, “that men have always slaughtered each other as they do today, that they’ve always been liars, cheats, traitors, ingrates and thieves, weak, fickle, cowardly, envious, greedy, drunken, miserly, ambitious, bloodthirsty, slanderous, lecherous, fanatical, hypocritical and foolish?”
“Do you believe,” said Martin, “that hawks have always eaten pigeons when they find them?”
“Yes, of course,” said Candide.
“Well, then,” said Martin, “if hawks have always had the same character, what makes you think men may have changed theirs?”
“Oh.” said Candide. “There’s a big difference, because of free will…”
– pg. 81

It’s important to note that Voltaire published this in 1759, and yet, all those ‘worst’ characteristics of men still very much apply. Today is the tomorrow of when this was written. I wonder if nearly 300 years would be enough to convince Candide of this obvious always.
This is also our second look at man’s corrupted nature compared to another species, thus moving us farther into the dark. Where James said that man became predators, it seems here that Martin believes we have always been so, and not only that, but will also always be so. So now not only do we have a constant battle between optimism and pessimism in these pages, but dissent between nature v. nurture in determining human nature. How can one be positive or negative about the world around him, if he cannot even determine why he is the way he is first? So many deep meaningful thoughts.

“Martin concluded that man was born to live in either the convulsions of distress or the lethargy of boredom.”
– pg. 117

Black or white with no grey between, just as Martin and Pangloss (arguably with Candide to a lesser degree) stick to their respective sides, with little overlap, just as James and Martin (again) are polarized in their view of whether nature or nurture cause human corruption. This quote heavily reminds me of Bluebeard and Vonnegut’s Rabo Karabekian in his wondering of ‘who is to be more pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect peace who has nothing more to say?’
Why do we only seem to thrive in the worst of conditions? Why is boredom/peace so very… deadly to human excellence? Perhaps deadly isn’t the right word, but it fits, doesn’t it? Complacency is the death of trying, of making, of creating, of doing. Why does it seem like the middle ground makes us mediocre?

“I also know,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”
“You’re right,” said Pangloss, “because when man was put in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ‘to dress it and to keep it,’ that is, to work; which proves that man was not born to be idle.”
“Let’s work without theorizing,” said Martin, “it’s the only way to make life bearable.”
– pg. 120 (The End)

God is mentioned a few times, but this is the first time, at the very end, that He’s dismissed so matter-of-factly. Of course, over-thinking and philosophizing are also dismissed, but here we are.
I can’t help but feel that Hemingway would agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment above, while Socrates would be disgusted. Once again we have a black or white with no grey between. For Hemingway knew that happiness didn’t easily come to the intelligent; to the over-thinkers, to the analyzers, to the philosophers, whereas Socrates believed that, regardless of happiness, examining life was the only way to actually live a good one. No matter your personal perspective on distress v complacency or thinking v not thinking or nature v nurture, one truth does hold universally true: we must cultivate our garden.
Without effort and work, we accomplish nothing, and no thought can change that fact. We must crush the vile thing: the fear that prevents us from doing in all realms of our existence.

As expected of classic French philosophy, this novel gives its reader a lot to think about. Like, this review is still over 1500 words, guys, and I tried my damnedest to cut it down. It was really interesting though; a quick enough read through, but the thoughts it caused lingered. I wish I knew more people who had read it too, this is the perfect book to discuss on an overcast day.

Jessie Gutierrez

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