Review by Josh Hasler, 2009
Candide. By Voltaire. Translated and Edited by Shane Weller. Dover Publications, 1993. 167 pp. $9.95.
The style of Voltaire’s Candide falls between the genres of comedy, satire and didactic folktale. First published in 1759, the scope of the book is the widest possible range of human suffering but also includes several personal jabs at rivals, critics and publishers, as well as some fairly historically specific events and figures. However, the story’s arc remains close enough to an observation of the human condition to avoid confusion over these specific cases. In keeping with his comic genre Voltaire dispenses with finely tuned religion and philosophy in favor of their surface appearance. Their function as caricatures serves to reduce metaphysical theodicy to absurd conclusions: that life is, as Thomas Hobbes said a hundred years prior, “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” but necessarily so and better for that fact. Candide emerges from an empirical thesis rather than a logical one. In his introduction to the work, Shane Weller acknowledges that while Voltaire’s parody of Leibniz’s philosophical optimism seems successful, he writes without an argument, much less a thoroughgoing presentation of Leibniz’s system. Rather, Weller suggests, Voltaire’s comic vehemence should be read as directed toward Leibniz’s interpreters, themselves over-simplifiers of theodicy and optimism.
In writing the story Voltaire assumes the voice of one Dr. Ralph who recounts the misadventures of the hero Candide. Candide himself is apparently dubiously descended from a Westphalian baroness and a lesser noble. He grows up serving in the house of his possible mother’s brother: the Baron Thunder-Ten-Tronckh. Under the tutelage of Pangloss, the cartoon portrait of a Leibnizian philosophical optimist who touts that “everything is at its best” (5) in this best of all possible worlds, Candide grows up in the knowledge of the necessary goodness of all that is. Candide repeats this mantra throughout the story as he struggles to reconcile necessity with the perdition he haplessly endures. These trials begin when Candide innocently kisses the baron’s daughter, Cunégonde—the object of his love throughout the story—and is ejected from the estate, as are so many characters in this tale, “with great kicks to his backside”(7). Penniless and starving, Candide unwittingly joins the same Bulgarian army that will later rape and plunder his former home, killing everyone he had previously known. Having been beaten nearly to death for desertion (actually a misinterpreted stroll) he is rescued by the conveniently passing king of the Bulgarians, a fellow metaphysician, who takes an interest in the young philosopher. Candide eventually escapes the Bulgarians during battle when, Dr. Ralph tells us, he “decided to go elsewhere to reason effects and causes…[,] passed over heaps of dying men and arrived first at a neighboring village.…that the Bulgarians had burned in accordance with international law” (13). This is the same law, doubtless, of universal necessity given by Pangloss, who managed to survive the Bulgarian attack on their home and meets Candide on the road. Reunited with the now syphilitic philosopher—who is promptly hanged in a religious ceremony while Candide is again flogged—he again reassures Candide that “all’s well”(147) and then shares news about the rape and disembowelment of his love Cunégonde by Candide’s Bulgarian army. She, however, also survives, witnesses Pangloss’ hanging and Candide’s flogging and sends her servant (a pope’s daughter with a sad story of her own) to fetch the near-dead hero. In the course of the story Candide is forced to murder a Portuguese inquisitor, flees to South America, loses Cunégonde again, and murders a Jesuit—Cunégonde’s brother who survives both the Bulgarian attack and this murder. Candide and his servant Cacambo are then captured and nearly eaten by South Americans. All of this Voltaire, via Dr. Ralph, describes in grisly detail. The heroes manage to escape and stumble upon the paradise of El Dorado. There, gold is simply mud and jewels pebbles and the two enjoy perfect, free hospitality from the native people. However, even in paradise, Cunégonde’s absence and the temptation to bring El Dorado’s inconceivable wealth back to Europe ultimately outweigh their bliss. It is unsurprising to find that even with wealth (which the Eldoradans were happy to supply them) Candide also suffers tremendously. During his journey he hires Martin the Manichean for philosophical company, whose belief in the real substance of evil begins to wear through Candide’s optimism.
Despite the gruesome events that befall his characters, Voltaire allows only a few peripheral characters to actually die. When Cunégonde’s servant “the old woman” shares her story she best encapsulates the desperation of each tragic character:
I still loved life. That ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most baneful inclinations: for is there anything more foolish than to wish to carry continually a burden that one can always throw down? to abhor one’s existence, and yet cling to that existence? in short, to cherish the serpent that devours us, until it has eaten our heart? (53).
But Voltaire, like the world, denies them any escape from their suffering. Hence, his existence again proving intractable, Pangloss returns alive once again to discuss metaphysics with Candide and Martin, his philosophical contrast. It is not necessary to rehearse the additional calamities that befall Candide and his friends. However, three events are worth detailing further: The abandonment of paradise, the boredom of the Venetian nobleman and the ugliness of Cunégonde. With each of these events, rather than marking yet another calamity, Voltaire shows us that even at its best, the world dissatisfies its inhabitants. Time disintegrates beauty and happiness even when the world is at relative peace. In Voltaire’s world life tends to get subtly worse just when it is supposedly better. Only a subtle discontent drives Candide and Cocambo away from the Eden of El Dorado. Later, Candide observes to Martin the Manichean about the bored and apathetic Venetian noble, Lord Pococurante: “he is the most fortunate of all men, for he is superior to all he possesses” (139). Martin points out that his constant state of disgust actually makes him doubly miserable. The nobleman is a slave to nothing, unmoved by anything. But he cannot recognize beauty just as the El Doradans could not recognize their wealth. Candide then tells us: “No one is happy except me, when I see Miss Cunégonde again” (139) a statement he retracts when, on their final meeting, he finds her horrifically ugly. In fact, once Voltaire reunites the victims of the story in a peaceful home they are mostly miserable together. He gives them some reprieve only when, finally, they encounter a Turkish philosopher who suggests that they cease reflecting on the problem of evil and suffering. The group is only happy when “metaphysics” is ignored.
Various brands of Christianity receive parodic blows throughout the story and Islam fares only slightly better. Interestingly, Voltaire’s rancor tends to be directed more toward religious institutions than at poor, naïve individuals seeking religious consolation for their suffering. Voltaire’s parody more pointedly critiques any philosophy or system that claims a god’s-eye-view of a universal whole. Hence Pangloss, a name which Weller notes in his introduction to be an amalgam of the Greek pan and glossa: all and tongue, is an embodied mockery of hubristic, speculative philosophy. The end of the tale reinforces this, when the surviving characters finally cease to philosophize and work with the admission than no answer will satisfy the conditions their experiences have placed on the question of evil. Convinced of this Pangloss declares: “’man was not born for repose’” at which Martin seconds: “Let’s work without reasoning….it’s the only way to make life bearable” (165).
Candide’s humor is dark and enjoyable as such. Its light and straightforward tone compounds its morbid comedy, even if its simplistic style is likely fun at the expense of the innocent narrator Dr. Ralph. Voltaire nearly manages to produce a subtle polyvalence of meaning in the story but stops well short of a complex narrative. He writes with, Weller tells us in his introduction, “a series of one-liners delivered with the consummate artistry of an accomplished stand-up comedian.” Indeed, the story could be read as a simple succession of abuses heaped upon those with whom Voltaire disagreed and be none the worse for that. However, Voltaire’s choice of genre naturally begs the question of fairness. Overstatements abound, of course, as he mocks love and self-sacrifice along with theodicy and dogmatic philosophy. Unabashed satire tends to produce straw men and parody even more so. However, self-consciously creating them in the uncanny image of their intended subjects produces a dark humor that demands a certain amount of reflection from its reader. What Voltaire accomplishes in the story is a humorous bludgeoning rather than a treatise, which in a literary evaluation likely verges on the thoughtfully uncharitable. The charm of the final product lies in its capacity to lay all suffering at the feet of theodicy and ignore its futile answers.