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Candide by Voltaire: The 18th century classic captures modern day life

Leonard Bernstein's Candide is staged at Toulouse's Capitole theatre in 2016. Picture: ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

SUNA ERDEM on why Voltaire’s Candide has never been more current.

The jolly chorus prances around the stage singing a happy tune. “What a day, what a day!” they sing, joyously. “What a sunny summer sky!

“It’s a lovely day for drinking/And for watching people fry!”

The ludicrous juxtaposition of cheer and horror in this, from Leonard Bernstein’s Auto-da-Fé (What a day), from his musical Candide, beautifully encapsulates the mood of the Voltaire novella that inspired it.

Dripping sarcasm from start to finish, Candide, in both the musical and original 18th century prose version, is a fast-paced jolly romp taking us through such a catalogue of horrors that it’s a case of blink and you miss a murderous rape.

The song referenced above tells the story of how the naïve Candide and his philosopher teacher, Pangloss, have been caught up in a ritual burning of heretics – that is, an auto-da-fé, literal meaning a ‘test of faith’ – carried out by the Spanish Inquisition.

Odd and quirky it may be, with its savage evisceration of a world in chaos run by malign fools, but Candide somehow manages to have relevance whenever it is read. And recently it has been having a bit of a moment.

The musical version has been performed copiously over the past year thanks to the centenary of Bernstein’s birth. It even bathed in Hollywood and Broadway stardust over the summer, when Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan narrated the Philadelphia Orchestra’s symphonic staging, led by the superstar conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

This year is also when the Oxford-based Voltaire Foundation – headed up by professor Nicholas Cronk, my engaging tutor on the subject at university – completes its groundbreaking project to publish the complete works of Candide’s author, the 18th century Enlightenment writer and philosopher, which runs to 200 volumes.

Given the extent of his oeuvre and fame, it may be surprising that Voltaire’s most famous work is a short novella running to barely 100 pages, published 260 years ago under a pseudonym and not acknowledged by the author for 19 years.

But on reading it, it’s easy to see why. Candide is a cracking read, and the pace drags the reader along as the hapless hero tumbles from mishap to mishap until the relatively happy ending, which in itself is abrupt and unexpected after so much misery and slaughter.

Candide is the bastard nephew of a Westphalian baron who kicks him out – literally – from his mansion when he catches him kissing the delectable Cunegonde, the baron’s daughter. He is then forcibly recruited to fight in an army of ‘Bulgars’, who – Candide learns later – lay waste to the Baron’s lands, kill him, his wife and his son, and ‘ravish’ and disembowel Cunegonde.

Before his expulsion, Candide and Cunegonde had been under the instruction of Pangloss, who had been teaching them that all that happens in the world is “for the best in this best of all possible worlds”.

The narrative continues to challenge this thesis as Candide is shipwrecked, robbed in Paris, caught up in the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755, almost killed by the Spanish Inquisition, sold into slavery, nearly eaten by cannibals in South America, robbed, tricked and robbed again, along the way constantly finding and losing Cunegonde and the syphilis-ridden Pangloss (deformed by the disease he caught from the Baron’s maid, Pacquette. Do keep up).

Throughout the story, characters get lost or apparently die – Cunegonde at the start, Pangloss in the hands of the Inquisition, the Baron’s son, who appears later and is shown being killed by Candide – but they keep turning up anyway, mainly as a result of people not being able to kill them properly, but also for a narrative purpose. Each time he appears, Pangloss offers another justification for his philosophy that all is for the good – syphilis is good, for instance, because if Columbus had not travelled to the New World and brought it back, Europeans would not have tasted chocolate. Each time she returns, Conegonde’s flexible morals still fail to destroy’s Candide’s sincere love for her.

Along the way, we meet lascivious, corrupt, duplicitous and ruthless priests, officials, politicians, generals and business people. But Voltaire’s greatest ire is reserved for the philosophical idea that they live in “the best of all possible worlds” and that, in the words of his contemporary, Alexander Pope, “all that is, is good”.

The novel is titled Candide, or Optimism – a word only recently coined and here representing the philosophy of German mathematician and thinker, Leibniz, whose ideas Pangloss tries to convey and who becomes the main target of Candide’s satire.

This was a time when thinkers were trying to find a solution to the concept of ‘evil’ while continuing to believe in a benign, all-powerful God. They could only reconcile this idea – that God could be in charge and also good, even as innocent children died, women were raped, and men burned each other – if they could allow bad things to be subsumed into the general belief that even misfortune and suffering of some individuals served a greater good for most, or at the very least, were an integral part of the grand scheme of things.

For a rational thinker living through a time when the Seven Years’ War had spanned countries and continents, this was hard to take. After the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 killed tens of thousands of people and razed the Portuguese capital to the ground, he found that even harder. People were drowned, crushed and buried alive. The Inquisition’s solution to the problem was to burning heretics alive in an auto-da-fé to prevent another earthquake. If Leibniz was right, then God was taking the mickey.

When Candide was published, Voltaire managed to ensure it was released in several countries simultaneously – this guaranteed rapid international exposure and ensured that when the scandalous, blasphemous, disrespectful work was banned by one authority, there were several other editions ready for retranslation. This was canny and very unusual. Most books at the time, even bestsellers such as Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Laclos, had to wait years before they were translated and disseminated wider. Few authors lived long enough to ever set eyes on an English edition.

This attitude to marketing was ahead of his time, but then Voltaire had many characteristics that are modern even by today’s standards.

A bestseller, he was also a celebrity. As Cronk has recently said, he was like the Taylor Swift or the Justin Bieber of his time and was equally aware of the need to manage his fame. Voltaire created and fed to the public anecdotes to keep his image fresh. He also revelled in creating his own ‘fake news’, giving out a false birth date, apparently just for fun, and watching the consternation of literary gossips as they tried to understand.

His private life was also colourful. He was imprisoned in the Bastille for alleging that the Duc D’Orleans, the regent after his brother Louis XIV died, was sleeping with his own daughter, and he later had to leave France after being beaten up by the servants of a nobleman and challenging him to come and fight him personally instead of leaving it to his lackeys – such was Voltaire’s belief in equality.

Deciding that he had better travel for a while, Voltaire visited England and admired much of the pragmatic and rational attitudes he found there. He spent several years staying with Frederick the Great of Prussia, the erudite arts-lover, who had long admired Voltaire from afar. The experience dimmed their mutual admiration somewhat, but not before allegedly becoming lovers, even though Frederick was gay but Voltaire not.

Another Voltaire trait in tune with today was his mastery of the one-liner, many of which stem from Candide. In one episode, the British are about to hang Admiral Byng, the navy officer blamed for failing to prevent Minorca falling to the French – whom Voltaire had met and liked in real life and had tried to save – for alleged cowardice, “pour encourager les autres”.

At the end of the story, Candide, Cunegonde, and their entourage settle on a farm in Constantinople, where the hero believes it is best to “cultivate one’s own garden” – another phrase that joined the common lexicon and perhaps a more pragmatic and modest response to chaos than arguing that it’s all for the best.

Yet Voltaire never said the most famous phrase universally attributed to him: “I do not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This was invented by an early 20th century biographer who found the phrase as a way of expressing Voltaire’s attitude to free speech.

It doesn’t really matter in a sense that he didn’t actually voice those words, because Voltaire embodied that idea, which courses through his writing and down the centuries, ensuring that his ideas endure.

At a glance, it might look like Candide, with its precise references to events and characters of the 18th century, is rooted in its own time and place, but Bernstein wrote his operetta as a response to McCarthy-era America, where he was personally forced to sign a document attesting that he wasn’t a red, and many of those around him became victims of political witch-hunts by a paranoid anti-communist government.

The lampooning of the prevailing norms and the absurdity of sticking to a flawed idea despite the damage it did clearly resonated with the composer.

Updates have added contemporary references. In a 2010 staging, the inquisitor ordering the killing of Pangloss and several others is a thinly disguised pre-presidential, Apprentice-era Donald Trump, calling for people to be “fired”.

This summer’s Philadelphia Orchestra production transported Candide to a 1990s high school, making it more Buffy the Vampire Slayer than a slayer of philosophical ideas.

What would today’s Candide look like? There are many options, but it’s easy to imagine, say, Candide getting caught up in a climate-change induced disaster, being simultaneously no-platformed by oversensitive guardians of safe spaces and attacked by far-right libertarians, falling into the hands of jihadist kidnappers, helplessly taking part in Middle East wars on various sides, boarding a refugee boat to Europe, then ending up in a Trump or Brexit rally, bewildered at the sight of the lying, mob-inciting politicians that lead them.

Pangloss might try to rationalise people dying as a result of the anti-vaxx movement and genocidally slaughtered by those angered by false and incendiary Facebook posts.

Voltaire’s warning that “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”, would work just as well in today’s political landscape – for instance the rise in white supremacist killings, which have increased recently in tandem with the spread of the pernicious ‘white replacement’ theory that people of colour seek to breed their way to power.

When in South America, Candide comes across a slave in Surinam who has had an arm and a leg cut off while trying to escape a sugar plantation – the victim tells Candide that this is the cost of Europeans eating sugar. Today we have reports of Asian workers committing suicide because of work conditions in factories producing our technological devices; others being buried under the rubble of a poorly-constructed clothing sweatshop supplying fast fashion to frivolous European shoppers; and fish harvested by modern-day slaves. The phenomenon still exists.

There is one bright spot in Candide, when he and his faithful servant Cacambo stumble across the utopian El Dorado, with streets literally paved with gems, advanced science but no laws, since a population so agreeable had no need of them.

They eventually become restless, leaving to find Cunegonde once more, and taking some of the under-appreciated wealth, which they mostly lose to bribes and tricksters.

There is an intriguing link between this section and a less discussed part of American academic Francis Fukuyama’s internationally bestselling but subsequently criticised 1990s book, The End of History and the Last Man.

This section argues that a lengthy period of political stability and relative peace could lead to boredom and restlessness, possibly giving rise to violence and demagogues. He even pointed to Trump as the sort of character who could benefit from the search for something radical.

This ties Voltaire, maybe tenuously, with a theory that since the 1990s, when all seemed to be improving (for the best in the best of all possible worlds), liberal democrats became too complacent, enabling today’s radicalism and anger.

While cultivating your garden does seem like an introverted response to the horrors of the world, Voltaire’s general attitude is, after all, one of outrage and a refusal to accept a harmful status quo.

In any case, there is clearly something of this that Bernstein saw in the novella and Voltaire’s assault on a rather complacent, fatalistic sense of optimism. And less than a year before he died, in a 1989 concert in the Barbican Hall in London, he issued this call to arms that we would do well to heed today:

“Optimism as a strict belief therefore breeds complacency, induces lethargy, inhibits the human power to change, to progress, to rise against injustice or create anything that might contribute to a genuinely better world…”

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