Review: Candide ~ Voltaire

While I think everyone should read everything I ever review (I rarely read books I don’t like, set texts aside, and I only really feel the need to review very interesting or very good books), I especially think no-one should not have read Candide. That’s partly because fucker is less than a hundred pages long, and written with all the dense prose and complex imagery of a picture book. It’s not one of those must-reads like Ulysses or Capital. And it is an absolute blast. People tell me ‘bimble’ isn’t a word (dictionary aside, they’re wrong). From now on, I think I’ll just point them at Candide. It is very much the tale of characters bimbling around the world. I remember our teacher drew us a map of the adventure – it goes from Westphalia to Bulgaria to Holland to Portugal to South America to France to Venice to Turkey at a rapid pace. Characters return to life more often than the Daleks. But the cheerful absurdity of it all is laced with venom, and it’s the irony that makes this book. Voltaire seems to lash into everything he saw, and every other chapter, something new is getting it in the neck.

I should probably declare an interest – the town I lived in for six years, Ferney-Voltaire, was almost a product of Voltaire. After he was [ejected?] from Geneva in ?, Voltaire took up residence in the commune of Fernex, and set about improving it, building homes, draining swamps, starting workshops to provide employment, etc. He also changed that hideous name, reasoning that there were too many –ex’s in the region (I feel much the same way). This is important beyond it simply being a cool thing he did. While there are a variety of nice little insights and quotes throughout the book (the main character’s dismissal of optimism is a favourite of mine*), the conclusion is what really bears taking away.

“Cela est bien dit, mais il faut cultiver son jardin.”  “Well said, but one must tend one’s garden.”

I’ve left the original quote there not out of a desire to show off (although I think that was a lost cause once I set about reviewing two French books), but because I have no idea how to translate it. It’s often quoted without the “Well said” part at the start, which seems to me to utterly miss the point. At the end of the tale, Candide’s friends are discussing their situation and providing elaborate justifications and reasonings for it, much as they have done throughout the story. The main character, having travelled the world and put his childhood teachings to test and found them wanting, does not disagree with their speeches – “well said”, but sets them aside, because (and I have never known quite how to translate “il faut” – something along the lines of “it is necessary to”, I suspect) there is a garden to be tended.

I take a lot away from that. If I had only written that on the first philosophy paper I had to write last year, I could have saved myself a lot of hassle. To me, the garden to be tended is a life to be lived. But it’s not just a Theses on Feuerbach “the philosophers have interpreted the world” idea – not only is it more important to act then to speak, but unlike Marx, the point is not to aim to change the world. No one individual can realistically hope to change the world. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to change our own little gardens, our little spheres.  Maybe it’s in a “be the change you want to see in the world” vibe, but I don’t much like that saying, because it can end up a bit “RECYCLE IF YOU WANT THE MAJOR INDUSTRIAL POWERS TO STOP DESTROYING THE ENVIRONMENT”. Which, seriously. Die.

Even better, it dovetails nicely with my takeaways from La Peste.

* “Qu’est-ce que l’optimisme? C’est la rage de croire que tout va bien quand on est mal!” “What is optimism? The madness of believing everything is fine when you’re not!”

Boom.

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