VOLTAIRE Two portraits Manuscript page Voltaire is one of world’s most admired writers, but, as was the case with Molière, there are difficulties in the path of our appreciation. For one thing, to be frank about it, there is much to object to in his life and writings. Nevertheless, it is telling that even people who disliked elements of Voltaire’s work and/or character have often been grudgingly moved to praise him.
The British critic Cyril Connolly wrote: “I have never loved Voltaire overmuch: his mind has no shade — but one must honour him as nature’s triumph, as a model of what intelligence can accomplish.” He also called Voltaire “the wittiest, worldliest and most life-loving of us all, the very symbol and archetype of humanism.”
The French writer Joseph de Maistre, who both admired and detested Voltaire for different reasons, pronounced this antithetical verdict in which he combined his doctrine and his taste: ‘I should like,’ he said, ‘to have a statue raised to him … by the public executioner.’” — Valéry
Many others have been justifiably appalled by Voltaire’s virulent antisemitism, intense and irrational even for its day, and traces of which are evident in Candide, but even these people usually admire his work. A good example is the Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein who wrote a famous and popular operatic version of Candide.
Another difficulty for us lies in the nature of his achievement. As one critic put it: “Voltaire is remarkable for his style. No man ever wrote more lucid French. The witty turn of his genius gave every page of his prose interest, and whatever other criticisms may be leveled against him, he is never dull.” — Brown
Naturally, style doesn’t translate as well as content does.
Paul Valéry, one of the greatest modern French poets, has made several of the most incisive and useful remarks ever made on Voltaire, many of them helping us to grasp his Frenchness and his style, so he is worth quoting at some length. He wrote, for example, that Voltaire was:
“specifically French and unimaginable under any other skies—I would even say, under any other sky than Paris. The result is that in France, after two hundred and fifty years, his name still provokes strong and sharply conflicting reactions. Some people still fear and detest the man who delighted in ridiculing the objects of their beliefs, in heaping up mockery designed to destroy their faith, in pitting the letter of the Scriptures against their deeper meaning and their spirit. Other people see in him the apostle of freedom of thought and the defender of the sacred rights that every man owes it to himself to grant to every other man.” — Valéry
Cp. Joyce in Ireland.
“Voltaire replaced massive argument by the tactics of speed, short thrusts, feints, and a harassing irony. He moved from the logical to the comical, from good sense to pure fantasy, exploited all the weaknesses of his opponent and then tossed him to one side looking ridiculous, if he did not end by making him completely odious.
It was in this way that he achieved one very considerable result which has not attracted sufficient attention. What is known as ‘opinion’ had been created up to that time by the Court of Versailles; it spread from there to the City, and thence, after a certain time, might reach a comparatively small number of aristocrats and people of breeding living in the provinces. Voltaire broke this circle and extended the sphere of action of the written word. His style, the immense interest aroused by his appeals for justice, and the sort of scandal they created, attracted throughout the kingdom and beyond its frontiers a large number of readers. What had been the attitude of the Court and the City became the opinion of the public. Here we can see the full import and significance of a mere change in style: the public was created by an easy style. Simply increase the numbers still more; relax all the rules and restraints of language, making it immediately accessible to the masses; borrow from the masses their familiar and picturesque expressions, and the word ‘public’ can no longer be applied to that collective body at which the written word is aimed — to rouse, convince, and goad it into action. We must speak of the people, and the whole of the [French] Revolution is contained in that one word.”
“He had the gall to believe in nothing, or to think he did. [Explain] And he forced his view onto the public. Freedom of thought has belonged ever since to the general public — no longer the preserve of the few…. In short, Voltaire is a divide in the history of Europe. After him, all religious thought became a special case, a paradox, or a prejudice.”
And finally: “Voltaire is the classic par excellence, much more classical than the 17th-century authors [who in France are called the classics]….”
CANDIDE Published anonymously in Geneva in 1759, when Voltaire was 65 years old. It was widely denounced, and he was accused of writing it, which he denied.
Cp. Robinson Crusoe, 40 years earlier.
Shortly after Candide’s publication, a magazine asserted, correctly of course, that there was no kingdom of the Jesuits in Paraguay, and that the book had actually been written by Voltaire. Voltaire, using the pseudonym “Demad,”sent the magazine a letter forcefully denying both assertions and saying that the book had been written by his brother, Captain Demad. He dated the letter April 1, which, interestingly, had the same April-Fool’s-Day significance for eighteenth-century Parisians that it does for us.
Voltaire himself called Candide “a mixture of ridicule and horror.”
“Candide is, above all, a rollicking and caustic satire which, as the introduction in your anthology explains, deals a strong blow at the blissful optimism of the followers of Leibnitz. Voltaire had himself for a time leaned towards philosophical optimism, but his own experience at the hands of men and circumstances brought him to consider at close range the problem of evil in the world. Disgusted with human stupidity and cruelty, Voltaire had in mind one single objective: to make fun of man’s aberrations and heap sarcasm on them.” — Brown
“Voltaire’s major philosophical themes are not as apparent in his title, Candide or Optimism, Translated from the German of Doctor Ralph, as they are in the title of the metaphysical treatise by Leibnitz, which he is attacking, Essay of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Liberty of Man and the Origin of Evil. In both works, the questions of the goodness of god and the origin of evil are interrelated, as are those of free will and determinism.”—Aldridge
Since Voltaire is attacking an argument based upon “the Goodness of God,” he does not choose his model from the myths of the polytheistic ancient world, as his predecessors such as Molière often did. Instead, in writing of his hero’s steadfastness in the face of an endless stream of the most appalling tribulations, he looked for his model to a Biblical book. What book would that be?
Indeed, Voltaire called Candide “Job brought up to date.”
There had also been more recent theodicies—attempts “to justify the ways of God to man”—most notably John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Cartoon As you have read, Voltaire points to two kinds of ills which he can’t bring himself to attribute to a beneficent God: man-made ones, such as the outrageous brutality of the many wars of the day, and natural ones, such as the earthquake which killed more than thirty thousand people in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal.
Late in our course we will find twentieth-century writers such as Paul Celan trying to come to terms with the implications of the unprecedented horror of six million innocent people slaughtered by their fellow men. In the coming years, thinkers and writers will similarly struggle to explain how their God could allow 150,000 innocent people to be killed by the 2004 tsunami, or 100,000 by the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, or even the 1,100 by Hurricane Katrina. For example, with reference to the tsunami, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of many millions of Anglicans and Episcopalians around the world, wrote:
“The question: ‘How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?’ is very much around at the moment, and it would be wrong if it weren’t.” Voltaire felt himself in this position.
“The point of view opposite to that of Pangloss is expressed by two characters who serve as foils to Candide and his mentor Pangloss. One is Jacques, a charitable Anabaptist, who expounds the doctrine of the moral degeneration of man. Anabaptists—that is, Again-baptized, baptized as adult believers rather than as infants—wouldn’t, among many other things, bear arms, use force, or hold government office. They are the direct ancestors of the devout Amish and Mennonite people in the United States today.]The other is Martin, nominally a Manichean, who teaches the supremacy of evil rather than a balance of evil and good. Both are more often than not spokesmen for Voltaire.”— Aldridge
“It is true that Voltaire no longer believes in a beneficial Providence, yet he still has faith in true progress. Indeed, his opponents who proclaim that ‘all is for the best’ are precisely those who would like to maintain humanity in the lamentable situation in which it is at the present, and always by invoking the most sacred causes.” — Brown
Voltaire “has been accused of excessive sarcasm without the redeeming counterbalance of adequate moral teaching…. For the remaining 18 years of his life, though, he strove with youthful ardor and disinterestedness to act, to work, to struggle against ignorance and tyranny, to build, to sow, to defend the cause of the oppressed and underprivileged.” — Brown
TECHNIQUES To achieve his purposes, Voltaire uses three closely related techniques: irony, satire, and parody. These are not only crucial for understanding Candide, but also for understanding much of world literature, so we should clarify them now.
What is irony?
Candide is absolutely crammed with irony. What is an example or two?
What is satire?
What are some objects of Voltaire’s satire here?
religious abuses, class prejudices, political corruption, legal corruption, slavery, war
What is parody?
“One of Voltaire’s purposes is to parody the romance of adventure and the so-called philosophical novels which were in vogue at the time.” — Brown
I mentioned on Tuesday another very famous literary work from around this era that also parodies the romances of adventure, in which a character who has read too many such romances goes off on ill-conceived adventures himself? What’s that?
It’s no coincidence that DonQuixote is usually considered to be the first novel, distinguishing the essentially realistic novels from the fantastic romances that preceded them. Candide is not very realistic, and not a novel in the modern sense, but it shares Don Quixote’s mistrust of romance and they both parody that genre.
“Voltaire’s choice of parody of genre is singularly appropriate to his parody of philosophical optimism: romance was the product of an aesthetic that held that art should represent the world as it should be, rather than as it is, and philosophical optimism argued that the world is exactly as it should be. Everything Dr. Pangloss tells Candide about the ‘best of all possible worlds’ is of course belied by Candide’s own experiences of the world he actually inhabits. The parody of romance in Candide helps Voltaire make a point shared by Cervantes in Don Quixote and by the authors of many novels in their attacks on romance: that firsthand experience, rather than idealism, reading, or instruction, is the ultimate means to truth.”—Damrosch
Aside from using the Book of Job as a model, Candide, especially near its beginning, can also be seen as a parody of another very familiar part of the Bible. What’s that?
The Eden story in Genesis Along with the general questioning of God’s will, the temerity in parodying Scripture helped to earn Voltaire the enmity of the Church and of Counter-Enlightenment figures such as de Maistre.
CONCLUSION Voltaire’s conclusion, ‘We must cultivate our garden,’ is deliberately and profoundly ambiguous, and has led to much discussion over the centuries.
“The ambiguity may spawn at least three different readings. First, on a note of extreme pessimism, it could be urging that we must divorce ourselves from a culture which has been shown to have no answers to any of the problems of life, a culture which ironically holds reason as its most prized trait but which has used reason only to increase corruption, particularly when reason has been used to justify atrocities as ‘for the best.’ A second possibility, radically opposite, is that we must do the work at hand to crush out the infamy of ignorance wherever we see it, which was in line with many of Voltaire’s other writings. A third reading, probably the most widely held, argues that Voltaire advises us to discard all the philosophizing and to try, simply, to do whatever good we can do in the world nearest to our hand, as Voltaire himself sometimes did, helping persecuted people who crossed his path.”—HarperCollins
To put this third reading another way, man “must keep from useless theorizing, for that will not teach him that most important task of all: the art of living. Resigned in the end to accepting an absurd reality—there is no viable alternative—Voltaire shows us how to make the best of a bad situation and suggests that, on a small scale at least, improvement may be possible.” — Peyton Richter & Ilona Ricardo