Sunday, July 12, 2009

Candide - Voltaire

A classic along the lines of Gulliver's travels by Jonathan Swift, Voltaire's Candide is a fast-paced chronicle about a simple, naive and pleasant man in pursuit of his beloved, Cunegonde. Like Gulliver's travels, Candide is also a satire, ridiculing ideologies of the 17th century - Leibnizian optimism, the church and religious fanaticism among other contentious issues. When Voltaire came out with this book, it was banned all across Europe and only a few copies remained as they were smuggled out of the continent.

Leibnizian optimism talks about we being in an ideal world where everything happens in the best possible way for the good of the people. Voltaire, an ardent and vocal critique of this view presents the evil in the world, it's suffering and the prevalent tyranny in this story about Candide, who has to travel around the globe in search of his love, a reason for which he was banished from the place he grew up in West Germany. Voltaire is brutal on optimism and the story is pretty depressing as Candide sees omnipresence of evil, that makes him abandon his teacher's (Pangloss) optimistic views, views similar to Leibniz.

Voltaire also attacks the church and it's conservative views. He brings forth the sufferings of slavery and the genocide of natives in Latin America. Islam and Judaism are not spared as Candide travels through Constantinople. Voltaire does cover an utopian El Dorado, perhaps his views of an ideal state, where rationalism rules over wealth and power. Candide also discovers the wave of power, with it's crests and troughs as he meets 6 monarchs in an inn, all bereft of their power and in exile or travelling. After 130-pages of misery, all ends well as Candide is united with his love, his teacher and his confidants.

Voltaire ends the novel with "we must cultivate our garden", after seeing a happy and content farmer and his family at Constantinople. This particular statement is pretty open ended and has attracted many interpretations. Some say it is Voltaire's deistic views, that is God doesn't interfere in our daily activities, it is we who have to cultivate the garden given to us and it is in our hands to make our living the "best of all possible worlds". There are other interpretations like "Work keeps away three great evils: boredom, vice, and need."

Overall, a breezy read with messages well delivered and driven to a point of boredom. But it has a Orwellian hypocritical and depressive air to it.