Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Voltaire: Anciently Applicable

Brutal, vicious, and ruthless do not completely describe Voltaire’s Candide; however, they certainly move it in the proper direction. This is the most biting satire I have ever read and moreso the case as very little escapes its notice, from knowledge and romance to religion and back again and not even the Jesuits escape Voltaire’s wit.
In scrutinizing Voltaire’s brand of humor and blatantly sarcastic wit it is noticed that Voltaire’s language never takes on a sarcastic tone: it always reads seriously, the chapter titles inviting the reader to believe that they are being told a very grave account. Second, Candide seems to take the analyses of Freud, Hobbes, and Plato further in suggesting that humor as expressing scorn or superiority might be taken to a level where it is used on institutions and ideas rather than limited to persons and individual bases.
Using a serious, and at times exaggeratedly straight, tone gives the impression that the story is not intentionally funny, and yet its humor is apparent in its mockery. One instance of such a case is seen on page 23 when Cunegonde regards the old woman as such: “…finding the old woman very amusing, for pretending to have been as unfortunate as she.” Indeed, the very next chapter relates horrors of greater quantity (and quality?) to Cunegonde’s, dispelling her arrogance in an example of Voltaire’s ability to take human assumptions and tear them down; in this case, that being “my guilt is greater than thou.”
As Plato would be delighted to point out, this instance of incongruity sheds light on Cunegonde’s feelings of scorn towards the old woman, and Hobbes’ theory of superiority holds quite true in this instance. Other points in the story tease institutions generally accepted to be excellent, such as the Society of Jesus. When Candide and Cacambo are captured by the Oreillons and mistaken to be Jesuits they are to be eaten; upon correcting this misunderstanding, the Oreillons instead treat them as kings and celebrate that they are not Jesuits. I believe this illustrates idea concerning Imperialism that has not been considered until recently: a native culture may not be grateful for Euro-American attempts to “civilize” them as was the case with the Aborigines and most of the Native American tribes. This is just one of many examples of contradictions that upon reading seem funny but are also quite poignant in their attack on popular and accepted notions of society.

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