Thursday, February 4, 2010

Candide's Universal Journey

Just about all humans are brought up being taught certain things; facts of life, guidelines, religions, ideologies, etc. What these are and how we learn them varies enormously, culturally, geographically, generationally, and even on a person to person basis depending on who raises us during our early youth. At first it is natural to except these ideas for granted. They are all we know and it seems and for most (or at least for myself) the fact that there are other perspectives out there kind of goes unnoticed for a while. I think that a really important universal part of coming-of-age and forming your own identity is experiencing things and talking to other people that you can hold up to the backdrop of what you have taken for granted from youth. This starts as soon as you venture outside your house as a kid, but at least in my experience it gets a lot more meaningful as you get older and are more able to critically think about what you are seeing and hearing compared to what you previously took for granted as true. To me, the way Voltaire structured Candide, made reading the novel seem like you were an observer of a very unlikely yet somehow really authentic account of this process.

Let me try to explain what I mean. Voltaire starts the novel explaining to the reader Pangloss's philosophy about the world, and describing Candide's acceptance of these idea's as true (because they seem to hold true when taking into account Candide's first immediate environment). Pangloss teaches Candide that everything that happens, as good or bad as it seems, happens in order to create the best possible world. Any happening that occurs in the world happens with 'sufficient reason' to create this ideal existence. So the way Voltaire structures Candide, we are brought into the novel setting up this pretense; we are taught Pangloss's ideas as Candide is, and whether we agree with them or not, we are told that Candide does in fact take them as truth.

So once this happens, Voltaire has Pangloss die, and to me that is when this story really started. Candide, now on his own, is unable to consult Pangloss on all the confusing implications of his former mentor's ideas as they are applied in the outside world. Candide begins this journey, which Voltaire increments in short, bluntly titled chapters in which the ideas he has accepted as true since childhood are constantly challenged, and he is forced to reassess his own beliefs at each new step of this journey. First he sees Cunegonde, and it seems like all of his misfortunes serve the purpose of bringing him back to his love. But he is then immediately torn from her because he is being chased because of murders he committed in defense of his love. Furthermore, Candide hears the misfortunes of good people like the 'Old Woman,' Martin, and Cunegonde herself, and he must struggle to see 'do all of these incredible misfortunes really serve to make the world as good as it can possibley be?'

It seems like providence once again worked in Candide's favor when he finds himself reunited with Cunegonde's brother, but this feeling is immediately squashed when Candide is forced to kill his would-be brother-in-law. Candide must question if human nature is really any good at all. His ship is stolen by a dutch pirate, and he is even appaulled by his own actions as he states "I am the best natured creature in the world and yet I have already killed three men" (36). Martin, an eternal pessimist and proponent of an omnipresent evil in the world, basically the opposite of what Pangloss preaches, serves as an interesting foil to the ideas Candide clings so dearly to.

I think this aspect of the novel struck me so particularly because of this specific time in my life. College is a little like a less-intense, modern-day version of Candide's journey. There are a lot of things I experience, see, and hear that are kind of different than what I was brought up to think, and its a slow process to start considering other ideas as possibley legitimate, or even more preferable, than the ones you brought up to. I can relate to Candide trying to hold on to what he was taught as a kid, even though sometimes it seems evidence is stacking up against it. It's a process. For Candide it's a literal journey, but I think in a more metaphoric way its a journey we all take.

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