Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"We Must Cultivate Our Garden"

Reading Voltaire’s Candide for the second time, I still couldn’t quite get over all the death and resurrection. It’s just so weird. But I figure Voltaire knew what he was doing, so there must be a reason for such an absurd motif. Within the world of Candide, each character brings with him or her a new philosophical line of inquiry or an ideology for Candide to consider and somehow reconcile with Pangloss’ belief in the “best of all possible worlds” (pg. 1) theory, which Candide learned at a young age. At first, I thought the fact that the baron, Pangloss and Cunegonde were resurrected fell into Pangloss’ theory, but reading the book for a second time, I started to think differently; throughout the book, Pangloss’ theory is brought into question, challenged, denied, rejected, and some might even say disproved outright. Each chapter brings devastation, destruction, and death in many cases, which therefore causes trauma for Candide, who tries to cling to Pangloss’ theory regardless of the turmoil surrounding him. By the end, Pangloss’ and Candide’s optimism looks pitiful, ignorant, and even stupid. Voltaire’s clear critique of mindless, blind optimism does not align with the seeming joy of resurrection.

In the end, as all the characters “cultivate [their] garden” (pg. 87); Voltaire writes, “’Let us work,’ said Martin, ‘without disputing; it is the only was to render life tolerable.’ The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plots of land produced plentiful crops” (pg. 87). Each character, working “according to their different abilities” is transformed into a generalized caricature of a set of beliefs. Pangloss stands in for optimism, Martin for cynicism, and Candide for anybody attempting to make sense of the events of the world. Voltaire resurrects his characters not to lend himself to the optimism of Pangloss, but to emphasize that his characters are not characters and are not meant to be characters. The specifics of the characters and events of Candide are not what matters; what does matter is that the characters cultivate the garden regardless of specifics.

In this reading of Candide, Voltaire brings into question not only optimism, but also any and all sets of beliefs that bear no fruit. I think that Voltaire wants his reader to question everything they hear, but to the end of cultivation. What qualifies as cultivation? How does one cultivate this garden we live in now? I’m not quite sure what Voltaire would say other than “according to their different abilities.”

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