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Voltaire's candid in Candide
Candide - Voltaire
Member Name: xalala
Candide - Voltaire
Date: 03/07/04, updated on 08/02/05 (7131 review reads)
Advantages: Satirical masterpiece
Disadvantages: Not all targets of satire can be identified by modern readers without help
Gosh, this review has been a while in the making! I hope you enjoy reading it, and that it inspires you to go and read Candide, whether in the original or in translation.
Candide, by French author Voltaire, was written in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake that happened in 1755 (yes, it's an old book!), and during the seven years war between France and Prussia, backed by England and taking place in the US. It's part of the "Enlightenment" works, a period when science and philosophy came to the fore and human reason was believed to be able to combat ignorance and superstition. The context that the book was written in is more important than usual, so I include these details (of which more later!).
It's difficult to give a plot summary in this review, as plot is far less important in this work than you might suppose, especially a work that takes the form of a novel. Candide is the illegitamate son of a German baron, brought up in a castle and tutored by Pangloss. Candide falls in love with the baron's daughter, who then kicks him out of the castle. He's then conscripted into the Bulgarian army, escapes and goes to Holland, where he meets Pangloss and Cunégonde again and things progress from there.
Candide is usually seen as a satire - on many different things. It's a social satire, but also it's a literary satire (on the form of the novel). The targets throughout are many and varied, and perhaps the key one is metaphysical optimism.
It's what? I hear you cry. Metaphysical optimism is attacked fairly savagely throughout Candide. It's basically a philosophical doctrine that originated with a German philosopher, Leibnitz (who is most likely represented by Pangloss within the text). It's main tenets are a belief in God as a benefic
ient being, and the belief that the world created by God is the best one possible. As Voltaire writes, "Tout est pour le meilleur dans le meilleur des mondes possibles" - and even if you don't speak French, you'll probably have heard of this quote - "Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds".
Voltaire repeatedly holds up this idea of the best of all possible worlds for examination and ridicule. For much of Candide it is used as a kind of mantra, yet it's undermined throughout by this very repetition. Candide himself becomes increasingly aware that the statement is untrue, too - from the very first chapter, where the hero (Candide) is thrown out of the castle, everything that follows is a conflict between hope and despair. For the reader, each time Candide experiences something akin to this (and believe me, he does - a lot), it's a denial of the metaphysical optimism doctrine. Candide himself, however, takes much longer to reach the same conclusion.
In examining this idea that a perfect God must, by definition, have created a perfect world, Voltaire includes the most gory things in this work, and very frequently. There's hardly a female character that hasn't experiences rape, slavery or prostitution. The bizarre things that happen are similar to those in Gulliver's Travels or Gargantua and Pantagruel - very far-fetched, and designed to get a point across rather than stand up to a disection of the plot.
One of the catalysts for Voltaire producing Candide seems to be the circumstances at large in the world at the time. If things truly are for the best in this best of worlds, how does one go about explaining the devastating effects of the Lisbon earthquake, where approximately 20,000 lives were lost.
The second satirical target is the established church
, a symbol of both power and authority over the people. In particular, for Voltaire this meant the Roman Catholic church. His vitriol is directed not at religion in general, but carefully pointed at established Christianity, in its institutionalised forms. Throughout the book, every religious figure with the possible exception of those in Eldorado is seen as being far too worldly for the priesthood. While the Inquisition has long been viewed as a barbaric thing, Voltaire exposes other crimes against the Church, as performed by its own religious figures. We're made aware of monks forced into a cloistered life by greedy parents and/or siblings, who openly visit prostitutes or keep mistresses, who are corrupt and steal whenever they can. Oh, and the author also manages to imply that there are homosexual relationships going on within the Church as well - quite advanced for the 1700s! One character is eventually revealed as the illegitimate daughter of the pope, no less.
Other targets for his ire include romanticised love (that is, the way that love is portrayed in fiction), and various of his contemporaries - in the same way that many of Leonardo da Vinci's enemies are supposed to have been portrayed in less than flattering ways in some of his most famous paintings, so Voltaire puts pen to paper and lets rip. Probably the most recognisable of these characters is that of Frederick the Great, who Voltaire acted as intermediary for during the 7 years war, and of his military regime. In addition, there's war, greed, social pride, dishonesty and prostitution all under attack.
The satire on the British Navy is short and swift: the entirety reads "Dans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres." ("In that country it's good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encou
rage the others."). This relates to a time in 1747 when the British Navy did actually court martial an admiral, find him guilty of losing a naval battle to the French, and execute him.
Perhaps the most amusing satire (because it's most wicked?) is that on individuals. Leibnitz is up for satirization, as mentioned earlier, and so is Frederick the Great (as King of the Bulgars). Thanks to Voltaire's close, if erratic, friendship with the Prussian, his satire is also the most historically accurate according to many sources. There are many examples of Voltaire having a dig at Frederick's sexuality. The Bulgar army is also a fairly straighforward representation of the Prussian army as it was at the time. It's not only the King of the Bulgars that Voltaire uses to satirize Frederick though - he also pops up in the characters of the Baron of Vestphalie and his son, Cunégarde's brother.
Although the whole book has the appearance of a novel, it shouldn't really be regarded as such. Rather, novel conventions are, again, the subject of satire. Voltaire's comments on the novel form are rarely other than derogatory, he seems to want to destroy all pretence and pretension - although he doesn't seem to have suceeded if modern fiction is anything to judge by!
Ultimately, although Candide can be considered humorous (at least in parts), it was never intended to be so. And Voltaire never intended that it be read purely as fiction, and never purely as a philosophical treatise either. It sits, for the modern reader, somewhere uncomfortably between the two, and can be read on either level. The plot and narrative are never fully in the forefront for Voltaire, rather it's the use of satire throughout (as you have probably gathered from the rest of this review) that is key.
It's clear that Voltaire disagrees with the whole idea of metaphysical optimism, but what is less clear is any philosophy that he's in favour of. Reading Candide without having an appreciation of the satirical intentions of the author leaves it, in my opinion, with very little intrinsic value, failing to stand up as either fiction or philosophy.
Worth a read if you have the time, but probably a library loan rather than a purchase (and a companion text or annotated version would probably help too).
You can even read it online if you want to: there's a translation in English available here: http://www.literature.org/authors/voltaire/candide /