Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Silly Optimists...

In the beginning of the semester we discussed that humor can either be extreme characters in everyday situations, or everyday characters in extreme situations. Voltaire’s Candide succeeds in having the most extreme characters endure the most extreme situations, and in turn creates a type of humor all his own that leaves readers racked with laughter, questions, and confusion. We laugh at the fact that Candide is able to be such an optimist throughout so much of the novel before giving in to the inevitable dreariness that surrounds him. I don’t know what exactly to make out of that except that maybe the realities of the world make us cynical and cynicism is to reality as optimism is to folly?

As Voltaire writes his novel it is evident that there is a quasi-double superior model of humor. The characters are presented in the text believing that they live in the “best of all possible worlds”, a notion that they use to rationalize every misfortune that they encounter. This is an apparent account of dramatic irony in the novel, these characters believing they live in this perfect world while the reader is aware they do not. Having these characters believe that they are superior to all other beings living in lesser societies creates the true humor of the text; readers are made the superior audience in the novel laughing at Candide, Cunnegonde, Pangloss, Martin, and the rest. Voltaire, of course,  being superior even to the readers, satirizing everything, makes every character and spectator worthy of being a target of his humor.

This being my second reading of Candide, I took a closer look at one of my favorite characters, Martin. I believed Martin to be a bitter masochist the first time I read Candide, but now, thanks to Descartes, I may understand Martin a bit more. Descartes believes that laughter and humor stem from hate or evil intermingled with joy; “derision or scorn is a sort of joy mingled with hatred…” (Descartes, 24). I feel as if Martin would agree with this theory having claimed in the text, “there is some pleasure in having no pleasure.” (Voltaire, 73) Perhaps masochists get it right. They enjoy pain, take pleasure in others pain, and therefore never expect anything good to happen to them. Perhaps if Candide had been a self-hating pessimist from the start the absurdities that followed him around from start to finish would never have occurred?

At the end of this novel it seems as if optimism and cynicism create a balance that grounds the characters in reality. No more extreme nonsense ensues but rather they focus on “cultivating their garden.” Voltaire makes it apparent that a balance must occur between humor and reality, only when that occurs can progress take place, i.e. the garden being cultivated. 

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