Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In Pursuit of Delight

“Whatever is difficult cannot please for long.”

Such is the jaded sentiment of the noble Venetian, Signor Pococurante, reputed as a man who has never known a moment of sorrow in Voltaire’s rousing satirical adventure, Candide. The Signor was discussing music when he staked this claim, and although I read it as a clear overgeneralization discounting the attitude of the individual hearer, I think it fits my immediate reading of Candide as a humorous piece.  Everything goes so incredibly wrong for Candide—his trust is violated at nearly every turn by miserable individuals who seem to do nothing more than verbally lament their truly wretched past experiences. The nature of their misery is magnified to the extreme—the old woman’s especially, being the sole survivor among heaps of dead bodies on multiple occasions, enslaved, stripped of one of her buttocks and then raped by a eunuch.  For me, Candide went way beyond the reasonable limits of Schadenfreude.  So many of the characters seemed to present their miserable histories as a badge of honor that there was no fun left in being singularly happy not to be in their place. The superiority model, to me, was ineffective.  I found humor in the extent of the overblown ridiculousness of the events that befell the hero Candide, but the presentation of romanticized misery countered the delightful shock effect of the exaggeration.

            So why did Voltaire beat his readers over the head with the idea that blind optimism is so silly?  Candide wavers in his staunch belief that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds long before the novel reaches its more realistic (but still hopeful) conclusion.  Why, then, was it necessary for Voltaire to slough him, and consequently the reader, through all the rest of it?  In spite of myself, I cannot help but be tickled by Candide’s persistence in finding Cunegonde and then fulfilling his mission of marrying her, despite his own lack of attraction.  Although his ideology wavers, his fervor in pursuit does not.  The nearly relentless stream of crushing disappointments and woeful individuals he encounters serves to amplify his powers of persistence.  I tire of hearing about the misery long before the hero does.  Perhaps it is in relief that I find myself curiously happy at the conclusion of Candide, but I think my amusement stems mostly from delight in the hero’s persistence. Does this prove that lengthy difficulty can be pleasing? I would venture yes, although in this case, it is less tickling and more triumphant a sensation than your typical humor noir. 

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