Candide

New post for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

When Voltaire’s Candide, ou l’Optimisme was (pseudonymously) published in February 1759, it was simultaneously released in the three great publishing centers of Continental Europe: Geneva, Amsterdam, and Paris. This was in part to shift as many copies as possible before it was pirated, but mostly to make it difficult for the authorities to ban it. The latter happened quickly in any event. The Advocate General of Paris declared the novella to be ‘contrary to religion and morals’, and by the end of the month, the Parisian parliament and the Grand Council of Geneva had both banned the book, seizing and destroying all the printed copies they could find. New editions immediately sprang up, reaching double figures by the end of the year and including three separate English translations. By the measure of any publishing epoch, Candide was a bestseller, its author becoming one of the first writers in history to achieve international celebrity and commercial success on a level that we would recognize today.

This little piece of Enlightenment satire has remained in print ever since, frequently cited as one of the most influential books ever written. And unlike other classics that appear in lists like Martin Seymour-Smith’s The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written, Candide is an easy and enjoyable read, coming in at a mere 38,000 words, not one of them wasted. It also packs a heavyweight philosophical punch – because you don’t get cited alongside works like the Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, the Bible, The Communist Manifesto, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Shakespeare’s first Folio, War and Peace, and Dante’s Divine Comedy (to name but a few) without content that is as sublime as it is seismic – but Voltaire achieved this on the wings of a butterfly. As Anatole France said, ‘in Voltaire’s fingers the pen runs and laughs.’

Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694 –1778) was no stranger to controversy. Fiercely critical of the Ancien Régime and the Catholic Church, and a fearless, eloquent and lifelong champion of free speech, religion freedom, constitutional monarchy, the separation of church and state, and the abolition of slavery, his writing got him beaten up more than once, and locked up twice in the Bastille. Often fearing for his safety, he spent several years of his life living in exile in England, then Prussia and finally Switzerland, where Candide was written; he didn’t return to France until shortly before his death. A prolific writer across several literary forms – he was a dramatist, satirist, poet, novelist, historian, philosopher, scientist, pamphleteer, and a prodigious correspondent – the sale of much of Voltaire’s published work was forbidden in his native country during his lifetime, and it was frequently burned in the street. As he cheerfully addressed his oppressors in his Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (Philosophical Dictionary, 1764): ‘I have from necessity the passion to write this; and you, you have the passion to contradict me: we are both equally foolish, equally the playthings of fate. Your nature is to do evil, mine is to love the truth and publish it in spite of you.’ In print and in private, Voltaire’s clarion call was ‘écrasez l’infâme’ – ‘crush the infamous’, by which he meant the royal and religious authorities that were often interlinked in Europe, the superstition and intolerance encouraged by the clergy (especially the Jesuits, who had educated him and whom he despised), and the ignorant masses – the ‘other idiots’ – who went along with it all.

Candide, then, was a continuation of this lifelong political/philosophical project, and the one that has endured, probably because of Voltaire’s profound blend of insight and irreverent humour. And rarely has an author got to the heart of the human condition with such concision…

Voltaire’s petit roman is somewhere between the Bildungsroman or ‘coming of age’ story, and the picaresque novel (from the Spanish word pícaro, meaning ‘rogue’ or ‘rascal’). The ‘pícaro’ is usually a likeable, lower-class ne’er-do-well who lives by his wits in a corrupt world, his episodic adventures building up a portrait of contemporary society in a satiric reflection of the Chivalric romance. Candide is not easily pigeonholed, but it certainly borrows from both genres. There’s something of the fairy tale about it as well, only turned on its head. The plot is relatively straightforward. The hero of the title, a young man of ‘the most agreeable manners’, is the ward (and possibly bastard nephew) of a Westphalian Baron. Along with the Baron’s son and daughter, Lady Cunégonde, Candide is educated by the tutor Dr. Pangloss, a strict Theodicist and follower of the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Names are important here. Candide comes from the Latin candidus, meaning ‘white’, ‘pure’, ‘beautiful’ and, by extension, ‘honest’, ‘sincere’, and ‘innocent’. Pangloss comes from the Greek pan (‘all’) and glossa ‘(tongue’), suggesting he is all talk (in opposition to the character ‘Panurge’ in Rabelais’ Third Book of Pantagruel, whose name means ‘all energy’ or ‘all work’); and ‘MademoiselleCunégonde’ is just filthy, leaving us to ponder whether Voltaire’s hero seeks an ideal, true love, or simply sex. As George Saintsbury wrote in A History of the French Novel (1917), ‘nobody will ever know anything about style who does not feel what the continual repetition in Candide’s mouth of that Mademoiselle does.’

Caught kissing Cunégonde by her father, Candide receives twenty kicks on the backside and is ejected from the castle. He is pressed into service in the ‘Bulgar’ (Prussian) army during the Seven Years’ War, flogged repeatedly and flung into bloody battle against the ‘Abars’ (the French). He manages to desert, and upon reuniting by complete accident with his old tutor in Holland, now a bit worse for wear, he embarks on an epic journey across the world in search of his lost love. Along the way, he is occasionally helped and mostly hindered by an array of colourful characters, and conned, robbed, and generally abused on a regular basis. Despite many setbacks, Candide remains essentially upbeat, although he grows to doubt the ‘optimistic’ teachings of his mentor as he sees more of the world for himself. Can it really be, as Pangloss argues, ‘the best of all possible worlds’? …

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