Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Voltaire's exaggerations

It seems that if Voltaire were still alive today, besides being very old, he would be a formidable match for Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Almost nothing escapes his biting satire, not even his protagonists, Candide and Pangloss, who are taken on a whirlwind journey throughout Europe, losing their initial optimistic view of the world along the way.
I think that a lot of the humor found in Candide comes from his use of exaggeration and the absurd. One example of this occurs when Candide and Cacambo venture upon the legendary city of El Dorado. In the city, gold and jewels make up the streets and pebbles and have no more value in El Dorado than their counterparts have in the real world. Voltaire portrays El Dorado as a kind of Utopia where everyone has enough and lives in harmony with their neighbors. In this way, Voltaire satirizes the idea of a perfect world. By using the mythical city of El Dorado as the example of the perfect civilization, Voltaire suggests that a perfect world is unattainable and just as mythical as the legendary city. This example is continued when Candide and Cacambo embark on the journey home accompanied by a treasure-bearing flock of sheep, gifts from the king of the city. In what seems as no time at all, most of the flock meets with a dramatic fate. Some fall into a morass, others die of hunger in the desert, and still others plunge down precipices. What little wealth they have left from their visit to El Dorado is cheated off of them when they return to Europe. Candide and Cacambo are unable to bring anything from El Dorado back with them to the real world, emphasizing the gulf between the reality of the world and the idea of the utopia.
Voltaire uses exaggeration and examples of the absurd throughout the book to satirize various human practices and institutions. Throughout their journeys, Candide and his various companions undergo all sorts of dramatic misfortunes, from an auto de fae, to an earthquake, and other unfortunate events. Throughout it all, the government, religion, love, and science are all attacked. At one point in the story, Voltaire even places himself on the chopping block when Candide chances upon a philosopher, choosing to speak to him because "he judged that there was not in the whole world a trade which could disgust one more".

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