February 21, 2018

Voltaire, Candide

On this day in 1694 Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet) was born. Few could have predicted his Age-defining stature, but apparently the young Voltaire showed every sign of becoming, as biographer Theodore Besterman puts it, "one of those over-life-size personages who seem perpetually to attract equally extraordinary events." As a teenager in Paris, Voltaire was so fond of the freethinking "libertins" that his father had him removed to Caen and then the Netherlands, for instruction in the political arts. This did not work, nor did attempts to become a lawyer -- these encouraged by father's threats of sending him to the West Indes or even prison, by way of a lettre de cachet.

Voltaire's talent was for writing, and his temperament was towards toppling rather than upholding authority. At age twenty-one he was exiled from Paris for five months, having stepped on the wrong toes with some satiric verses about the decadent life at Versailles. Six months later he was arrested again for similar offences, this time put in the Bastille. But both the decadence and the decadence -- pointing could be something of a game in the eighteenth century -- Dangerous Liaisons, by Choderlos de Laclos, was published in 1782, four years after Voltaire's death -- and Voltaire took prison in stride, according to Besterman:
    When arrested Voltaire bantered the officers, sympathised with them for having to work on a holiday, hoped that he would not be deprived of his milk, expressed delight at this opportunity to see again a place he knew so well from his visits to the duc de Richelieu (who had also met with this fashionable fate), and hoped that he would not be freed too soon.
This last comment was more than a smirk: in prison Voltaire "learned to harden myself against adversity" and began writing the literature which would guarantee that he see plenty of it. For the rest of his life Voltaire would be fĂȘted and favored by those who applauded his philosophy of rational humanism, or just wanted to rub shoulders with him personally; he would also be exiled, censored and vilified by those who found themselves attacked by him from all sides and in all genres. Voltaire seemed to enjoy both the applause and the exile, and he did not want for love or money. It is hard to find a portrait in which he is not smiling.

Or a paragraph. Often the smile is good-natured and subtle, but in Candide, Voltaire's most popular work, the satiric edge arrives mostly by broadsword. Chief target is the philosophy of status quo optimism advocated in the 18th century by, among others, Leibnitz. He is personified as Doctor Pangloss in the novel, one whose "metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology" allows him to smile stupidly on an endless, intercontinental catalogue of horrors -- rape and slaughter, crime and punishment, earthquake and shipwreck. In Chapter 1, as the good Doctor tutors the young Candide and his love, Cunegonde, "that there is no effect without a cause" and that "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds," all is still theoretical. But then Cunegonde "observed Doctor Pangloss in the bushes, giving a lesson in experimental physics to her mother's waiting-maid, a very pretty and docile brunette":
    Mademoiselle Cunegonde had a great inclination for science and watched breathlessly the reiterated experiments she witnessed; she observed clearly the Doctor's sufficient reason, the effects and the causes, and returned home very much excited, pensive, filled with the desire of learning, reflecting that she might be the sufficient reason of young Candide and that he might be hers.
To Voltaire and the Enlightenment, Doctor Pangloss came to symbolize all those who could not take change, or a joke.

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