IDYLLIC SATIRE: The Role of Cervantes and Voltaire. (1607 to 1778)

IDYLLIC SATIRE, continued ( 1607 to 1778)

CANDIDE by Voltaire:

    Voltaire’s words attacked the Church and the State with equal fervor, landing him in prison on more than one occasion. He was also appalled by the specters of injustice and inexplicable disasters that he saw around him. These events influenced his composition of Candide. It was also the age of Enlightenment which promoted a naive perception of optimism, which Voltaire dispatched with his character, Pangloss (The Instructor to Candide) and his mantra that “This is the best of all possible worlds”, right before all goes askew.

    Candide is the illegitimate nephew of a German Baron; Thunder Ten Trunk, where he grows up in the Baron’s castle under the tutelage of the scholar, Pangloss. He falls in love with the Baron’s beautiful daughter, Cunegonde. When the Baron catches the two kissing, he expels Candide from his home. Out on his own, Candide becomes the object of a cruel fate where he is soon conscripted into the Army of the Bulgars. He wanders away from camp for a brief walk one evening and is later flogged as a deserter. Then, after witnessing a horrific battle, he escapes to Holland.

   While in Holland, he meets a kindly Anabaptist who takes him in. He runs into a deformed beggar who turns out to be Pangloss. The Scholar tells him that he has contracted syphilis and that Cunegonde’s family has all been brutally murdered by the Bulgars. Nonetheless, Pangloss maintains his positive outlook. The three travel to Lisbon together where their ship is sunk in a storm, killing the Anabaptist. The two have arrived there during the Inquisition. It is here where Pangloss is hanged as a heretic for his optimism.

    Candide is flogged for his approval of Pangloss philosophy and his wounds are then dressed by an old woman who eventually takes him to Cunegonde. She survived to escape the Bulgars but was sold as a sex slave to the Grand Inquisitor. Candide kills the Grand Inquisitor when he comes to rape Cunegonde and the two must now escape from Lisbon with the old lady to South America where the Portugese authorities are in hot pursuit.

   They arrive in a place called Eldorado where the streets are littered with gold and jewels. This utopian country has advanced scientific knowledge, no religious conflicts, no courts and no perception upon the value of its riches, a smug assault on his own time. However, through a long hilarious but brutal series of untoward accidents, Candide loses Cunegonde again for a while, only to find her later, deformed and ugly, along with Pangloss, the old lady and his Uncle who have all escaped brutal death several times.

    They all wind up in prison until Candide is able to spare them by purchasing their freedom. At the end, they purchase a farm and settle down, taking to cultivating a garden in earnest. When Pangloss begins to pontificate about how this is now the best of all possible worlds, Candide dismisses him with, “Perhaps, but we must tend our garden”.

    It is a rejection of Pangloss’s philosophies for an ethic of hard practical work. And, it is one of the most glaring indictments of Pangloss’s optimism in that it is based on abstract philosophical argument rather than real-world experience. (This was also the theme of Don Quixote in his quest for chivalrous glory.)  Thus, with no time or leisure for idle speculation, the characters find the happiness that has eluded them throughout the novel. This is classic Voltaire. He dismisses the whole of the Enlightenment and its optimism for a little pragmatism with BITE…or what we might call…cynicism.

Resident Philosopher Doug Taylor