"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 28, 2011

"Candide" by Voltaire (Best Novellas)

Candide, written in 1759 by Voltaire (1694-1778), is a picaresque novella written to refute the tenets of the German philosopher Leibniz, who claimed that mankind lives in "the best of all possible worlds (created by God)." Voltaire was an agnostic who loathed the abuse of power and hypocrisy of the Church and he didn't agree at all that "everything was (already) for the best."

In Candide he piles misfortune on misfortune and disaster on disaster to show how bad the world really is. Candide is a young man like a blank leaf, very naive, in love with Cunegonde - when they are separated, he travels around the world searching for her. During his perambulations, he gradually learns about life and becomes more mature.

The point of view of Leibniz is represented by Candide's teacher, the philosopher Pangloss ("easy tongue"), who comes to grief, first by catching syphilis, later by being hanged. Voltaire graphically shows us the cruelty and savagery of humans who steal, rape, murder, torture, enslave, and cheat. He also includes historical happenings such as the Seven Years' War and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake (and tsunami). He even shows us the ills of colonialism (rare for the mid-eighteenth century!), in the form of a black man in Surinam whose hand and leg have been chopped off by his Dutch masters because he tried to escape. "That is the real cost of sugar," he remarks wryly. We also visit El Dorado, a land of equality where gold and riches are considered as so much dust, and Voltaire demonstrates how impossible such a utopia is.

Candide moves at neck-breaking speed, condensing whole novels into its chapters. It is full of sharp wit and provides an insightful portrayal of the human condition. In the end, Candide marries Cunegonde and they live on a farm. There they "cultivate their garden," which is the best we can do, as it leaves no time for idle speculation and as it serve the practical purpose of really making things gradually better.

Voltaire did believe in the ineradicable good of personal and philosophical liberty. Two other themes in his thought are the importance of skepticism and of empirical science. He was a fierce opponent of priestly and monarchical authority and fought these by debunking their  “irrational superstitions.”

As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, "Voltaire's legacy also cemented the alleged linkage that joined positivist science on the one hand with secularizing disenchantment and dechristianization on the other in the progressive modernization of the world. In this way, Voltaire should be seen as the initiator of a philosophical tradition that runs from him to Auguste Comte and Charles Darwin, and then on to Karl Popper and Richard Dawkins in the twentieth century."

Candide is an important element in that debunking of false authority - Leibniz stood at the side of authority, as he believed everything was already for the best. Voltaire on the other hand thought that social reform was necessary and that a lot of work ("cultivating our garden") was necessary in order to get a better society. He also was a child of the enlightenment in that he believed that rational thought can curtail evil.

Candide has had a significant influence on modern writers, especially on black humorists as Céline, Joseph Heller, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. It has also influenced dystopian science-fiction works as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Yevgeny Zamyatin's We.

In 1956, Candide was premiered as an operetta with music by Leonard Bernstein.
Candide can be found on Gutenberg. 

Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau