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“Candide” Revisited

I grabbed Candide from an impulse before heading out the door. I ended up reading it all in one sitting at lunch.

Candide is a masterpiece of satirical and comical literature. Heedless of the connotations and historical references, the third time around is pure enjoyment and absorption of Voltaire’s philosophy. It’s a fast-paced adventure story and travelogue, an unsentimental love story, a fantasy replete with history. Voltaire has a knack for creating a staccato rhythm in narration, which often achieves comic effect.

Voltaire’s early optimism underwent a profound change under the impact of events in his personal life as well as in reaction to the natural and man-made catastrophes that made him keenly aware of human suffering and misery, not to mention the dangers that threaten existence, let alone one’s well-being and chances of achieving happiness.

Many a times to read is to become enlightened the history of the period in which the writer lived. Voltaire’s own disappointments—the unexpected loss of Madame du Chatelet, the unrelenting hostility of the court of Louis XV—were compounded by his intense and immediate empathy; he spontaneously identified with all victims of calamities, war, injustice, prejudice, and intolerance—all contribute to the fictional events in Candide.

Candide is supremely wrought tragicomedy. It induces me to laugh at and at the same time reflect upon the most dreadful events that befall humankind. It appeals to us today because, nearly 250 years after its publication, it has lost none of its relevance and satirical sting. The book unleashes fierce attack against the evils of religious fanaticism (in present day religious intolerance and terrorism), war (war), colonialism (border dispute), slavery (trampling on human rights), and mass atrocities. But above all, to gives a glimpse of hope, it proclaims the human capacity to survive the worse of these calamities and endure.

[766] Candide – Voltaire

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” If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?” (Ch. VI, p.29)

Ever since 1759, when Voltaire wrote Candide in ridicule of the notion that this is the best of all possible worlds, this has been a gayer place for readers. The book has enjoyed a great success and scandal. The ridicule of the Catholic Church has rendered it banned in France and Spain. Yet Candide has not aged. Despite the change in circumstances, Candide is timeless, even more relevant today in its lambasting the vices of men. It is a fiercely relentless attack of men’s vices, unleashing against the evils of religions fanaticism, war, colonialism, slavery, avarice, and mass atrocities.

The villainy of mankind presented itself to his mind in all its deformity, and in his mind dwelt only on gloomy thoughts. (Ch. XIX, p.79)

Candide is a philosophical tale; a fast-moving and entertaining story combining adventures and voyages with an underlying moral theme. It’s the story of Candide, illegitimate nephew of a German baron, who catches Candide kissing his daughter, Cunégonde, and expels Candide from the castle. He is then forced to conscript into the Bulgarian army from which he later escapes and travels to Holland. Mistaken that Cunégonde had perished with her family when the Bulgars ravished the castle, he sails off to Portugal, where, upon, his arrival, is hit by an earthquake. To prevent future earthquake, the local church conducts a ceremony in which humans are burned as sacrifices. From there Candide travels across the Atlantic to Argentina, Paraguay, and back to Europe by way of France, and finally in Italy and Turkey. His voyage is a chain of shocking events that open the eyes of the gullible young man, who has been instructed in “optimism” by his master, Dr. Pangloss, whose credo that this is “the best of all possible worlds” has been humorously but effectively shredded by the story’s end.

In short, this world is nothing but one continuous scene of civil war. (Ch. XXII, p.93)

The moral lesson is life is made bearable by useful activity rather than by idle theorizing. Voltaire condemns this rife complacency. The very folly of optimism is that the existence of any evil in the world would have been a sign that God is either not entirely good or all-powerful. The variety of horrors that Candide witnesses (and experiences) only points to the cruelty and folly of humanity. What makes the book a scandal is Voltaire’s satirizing of organized religion by means of a series of corrupt, hypocritical religious leaders who appear throughout the novel. They steal, violate celibacy, perpetrate the vow to poverty, and carry out inhumane campaigns of religious oppression. Though Voltaire elaborates on these sins, he does not condemn the everyday religious believer. As terrible as the oppression and poverty that plague the poor and powerless may be, it’s clear that money, and the power that goes with it, is the root of evil. This book is an intelligent satire that remains as fresh and pertinent today as when it was written in the 18th century.

146 pp. Barnes & Noble Classic. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Rereading “Candide”

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Candide is considered Voltaire’s magnum opus and is often listed as part of the Western canon; it is arguably taught more than any other work of French literature. Experience had it that the trimmer the book, the more penetrative its meaning. The novella was published in 1759, a period in Europe when all the sovereign princes and republics carried on schemes of aggrandizement against each other.

It begins with a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism (or simply “optimism”) by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes the abrupt cessation of this lifestyle, followed by Candide’s slow, painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world.

The 18th century saw the appearance of a literature profoundly skeptical and critical of the courts and politics of the time. Politics was so petty during that age of multifarious sovereign states that the history became more and more manifestly gossip, more and more unmeaning and wearisome to a modern intelligence. In such a book as Voltaire’s Candide one has the expression of an infinite weariness with the planless confusion of the European world.