Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Who and What Are You Laughing At?

One of the main characteristics of Voltaire’s Candide that caught my attention was its ceaseless mocking of different European nationalities and religious affiliations, the observations of which left me thinking that it was done to a) multiply the belief that all humans, no matter what their backgrounds, are susceptible to harming others and being the victims of harm or b) make me feel better that, as a American and “contemporary” Catholic, I was exempt from all of Voltaire’s ridicule. Of course, the time in which Candide was written is highly different from today and thus the implications are in some ways incomparable, but the superiority theory of humor, especially with reference to Freud’s humor theory, was constantly in the back of my mind.

Much of Candide’s adventures and the friends and enemies he meets on them are characterized by some sort of national or cultural allegiance. The list of various peoples that Candide encounters ranges from the height-obsessed Bulgarian heroes, “vitriol” and “fire” blooded peoples of Africa, to the Italians, Spaniards, Jesuits, and even Frenchmen, whom, I would suppose, Voltaire was himself affiliated. However, in making the distinctions between each nationality or religious faction, Voltaire seems to be elevating the reader, who may or may not be of any nationality or religion mentioned, on a level in which he or she is not the target of the humor. Such a move is what makes me wonder why Voltaire chose to use a German as his central character rather than, say, a Frenchman like himself. Is he saying something about Germans by making Candide, who suffers immensely for his gullibility and his steadfast adherence to the just as foolishly optimistic Pangloss, the main character? And does it create humor because those who are not German do not suffer as Candide?

The latter Voltaire manages to twist; for we see, as evident in the story of the old woman, who is Italian, that everyone has their share of suffering. In fact, all of the surviving characters in the conclusion of the story have all suffered tremendously, yet at some point in the book, their actions, their beliefs, and the nationalities or peoples they represented were mocked outright. More so, to build on the seemingly contrasting unity that Voltaire’s targeted humor creates, he makes sure that no one nationality or religion (except, perhaps, Judaism) gets too much of the limelight. Where he pokes fun at the language of the Germans with names like Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh, he also makes fun of the Bulgarian language (ever heard of a town called “Waldbergofftrarbk-dikdorff”?). The same can be said of the Spanish, who are represented by the governor of “y + surname”: Don Fernando d’Ibaraa, y Figueroa, y Mascarenes, y Lampourdos, y Souza.

In retrospect, then, it appears as though Voltaire is implementing a superiority theory of humor but is also not implementing a superiority theory of humor. It is similar to Hau’ofa in that there are multiple targets to the humor, but considering the context in which Candide was written, the reader, especially contemporary readers such as us, are still elevated in a way because of the distance of time and situation. While I did find much of Candide to be humorous, I never at any point felt like I was in on the joke, per se. Even when Voltaire was making fun of the Inquisition and Catholicism, I was not offended because the Catholicism I grew up knowing was entirely reformed.

I think, perhaps, Freud’s theory of humor applies in many ways to why Candide appears to be so double-edged when it comes to the superiority aspect of humor that is and is not present. He says that “a man adopts a humorous attitude towards himself in order to ward off possible suffering.” This, I believe, is such the case with most, if not all, of the characters in Candide. Voltaire uses satire and humor to mask the universal suffering that afflicts all nations and peoples of the world (maybe not those in El Dorado, but who’s to say a place where they feed you a two-hundred pound boiled condor even exists?); and we see this explicitly in Pangloss, who, by the end, “owned that he had always suffered horribly, but as he had once asserted that everything went wonderfully well, he asserted it still, though he no longer believed it” (85). Freud also asserts that “in bringing about the humorous attitude, the super-ego is in fact repudiating reality and serving an illusion” from which “we feel it to have a peculiarly liberating and elevating effect.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the suffering experienced by the characters of Candide is necessarily “repudiated” it is certainly deflected in the humor.

As Freud says, humor can be used as a front to block off suffering, but in Candide, Voltaire shows us that though we are temporarily amused with the mocking of various peoples who are not us, we still know that the suffering is there, and that, perhaps, we need to do something about it.

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