After reading a long string of British novels I am finally extending my horizon and shifting across the Channel to read a French novel, Voltaire’s “Candide”. In fact, the horizon gets extended quite a bit as “Candide” takes place practically all over the known world.
Voltaire’s “Candide” is a very famous piece of work. I read it before, some 15 years ago or so, and it is one of those books that many people not particularly into old literature will know about. It also helps that it is rather short.
Voltaire wrote this as a satirical story where he manages to ridicule… everything. Seriously. The basic statement is that optimism is naïve and that the philosophers who promote optimism (Leibniz) are just pouring out BS. He does this by letting his “hero”, Candide, a young German man, be exposed to all the unfortunate incidents at all possible, usually instigated by the baseness of other people. Candide is a born optimist who keeps adhering to his philosophy that all is for the best and that this is the best of all possible worlds. This sentiment becomes more and more strained as more accidents happen than it is possible to list.
The events are not naturalistic, but rather fantastical and merely created to prove the point that people are in general egoistic and cruel and that goodness is always punished because other people do not need to follow rules of good behavior. Candide is convinced he will find somebody who is happy, but, nope, everybody is fundamentally unhappy. Except in the mythological Eldorado, a place inaccessible to normal humans.
This pessimism seems a bit tough, but it is worth keeping in mind that “Candide” was written at the height of the seven-year war, in which much of central Europe and indeed many other places in the world was devastated over a fundamentally pointless war (Kings wanted to extend possessions and influence). Besides, the mid-18th century had plenty of larger or smaller atrocities to pick from so for a humanist these were not great days. Voltaire uses this framework to point out all these injustices which may be institutional, religious, or simply borne out of low callous greed or arrogance. Consequently “Candide” was not well liked by rulers and institutions but loved by a population at large who likely recognized much of the unfairness Voltaire pointed out. “Candide” was released in five countries simultaneously and was the fastest selling book of the period. Take that, kings and priests!
Personally, I remember it as being more fun to read first time round. Some of the satirical elements are lost on a twenty-first century reader and some of the elements are so arbitrary and fantastic that it gets ridiculous, though that may be the point. Candide’s teacher, the philosopher Pangloss, who is the strongest proponent for optimism in the book manages to get himself killed four times, but magically reemerges from all but the last death. The Baron of Candide also manages to die a few times and switches between being best mate of Candide and mortal enemy every time Candide mentions his love for Cunegonde, the Baron’s sister. This is not a book to read for naturalistic consistency but to enjoy for the lampooning of all who are high and mighty or who think they are.
A curious detail, for me at least, is that after having visited Germany, The Netherlands, Portugal (during the big earthquake), Argentina, Paraguay. Surinam, France, Venice, Turkey, Persia and Norway, Candide ends up in Copenhagen, Denmark (where I happen to live) and after a short stint in Helsingør he settles here, married to a lovely Danish girl, this being the most tolerable place he has found outside of El Dorado. I am of course a bit flattered, but more likely the reason for this was that Denmark-Norway was one of the very few countries that stayed out of the Seven-years war and therefore avoided all these atrocities. Also the Danish king at the time had relinquished most of his power to a sensible chancellor who liberated the arts, something I am certain Voltaire would have appreciated.
“Candide” is short and easy and likely an essential read. I guess that is recommendation enough.