Wednesday, February 3, 2010

An Optimistic Reading of Candide

In Candide, Voltaire presents a satire that I found to be equal parts hilarious and perplexing. Like Mary, I was very much weirded out by all the death and resurrection, so much so that I came to expect it and never read a character’s death as a “real death.” This was my first reading, and it took me a little while to digest/process all the things that occurred within the story. What stood out to me most was that, like in Hau’ofa’s Tales of the Tikongs, almost no one escapes Voltaire’s satirical lens. As noted on the back cover, “Voltaire mercilessly exposes and satirizes...the ideas and forces that permeate and control the lives of men” (Appelbaum). Everyone is a target.

Readers watch as Candide clings to and blindly follows Pangloss’s unerring optimism. Voltaire’s Pangloss, “ professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology,” is a fairly ridiculous character (Voltaire 1). He believes that this is “the best of all possible worlds” and teaches optimism above all else; everything that happens is for the best. The humor arrives when, throughout the course of Candide’s travels, absolutely NOTHING good happens. Or, even when there is a slight bit of hope due to something positive happening, it is crushed by an even more negative event. The book consists of repeated floggings, shipwrecks, murders, war, torture, hangings, and just about every catastrophic event that one could imagine. Throughout my reading, I began to track the presence of hope in the story. Pangloss and Candide’s blind optimism could be considered hope, but there is something else present as well. I think the old woman says it best: “A hundred times I was upon the point of killing myself; but I still loved life. This ridiculous foible is perhaps one of our most fatal characteristics; for is there anything more absurd than to wish to carry continually a burden which one can always throw down? To detest existence and yet to cling to one’s existence” (29). While I realize that Voltaire is satirizing Candide’s near-fatal optimism, I cannot help but think there is something very true and very human about it. We live through great ordeals, trials, and tragedies. We come out scarred and broken, but we (mostly) still cling to life.

A large part of Candide’s hope and optimism stems from his (however flawed) relationship with Miss Cunegode. During his travels, Candide is able to continue because he is searching for her: “Candide, however, had one great advantage over Martin, in that he always hoped to see Miss Cunegode ; whereas Martin had nothing at all to hope” (52). It is hope that helps Candide persevere and survive. I realize that Voltaire is satirizing Pangloss’s optimism, but maybe part of the reason why it’s so funny is because it hits so close to home. Or maybe I’m just an optimist myself...

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