Saturday, 19 January 2013

Neither the Future nor the Past

I haven’t taken the standard line.  But is the obvious always so right and so certain?  Professor John Butt is without doubt correct when he writes that Candide is a satire on the optimistic philosophers of the 18th century; a group of intellectuals who believed all things were part of the universe's preordained pattern where everything, even suffering, was necessary for it to work.  Their attitude one of indifference to generalized pain.  This sounds right.  But how much are we saying, when we say this?

Isn’t such a view, signposted very clearly by the author, just a little too obvious and simple-minded to sustain a book over two centuries?  Why didn’t it die once the fad had ended?  Pangloss, in this interpretation, reduced to a simple caricature of just one kind of ideologue, the Philosophic Optimists, rather than a representative of a type common throughout the ages; Voltaire’s wit demolishing not only 18th century metaphysicians but today’s deterministic disciples of Darwin, the latest in a very long line of rationalist simpletons.

John Butt’s insight is in identifying Pangloss as a disciple.1  Candide’s teacher has all the intellectual attributes of a follower; essentially those of the copyist rather than the original thinker, where memory and reason are more important than thought and creative intuition, which itself depends on feeling and a sensitivity to particulars.  Here is the essence of this famous parable; its critique of the foolish cleverness of the doctrinaire disciple.  The topical details vanishing into a timeless archetype as the book travels through the centuries; the period clothes thrown out of the train window to leave the Philosophic Optimists, those ephemeral followers of the latest academic fashion, stripped naked, with only the general idea - the withered flesh of the ideologue - left to amuse us.

The problem in the professor’s (all too standard) account is highlighted by the significance he gives to Candide’s quest for his lost lover...

Voltaire takes his representative of mankind to that paradise of eighteenth-century philosophers, the imaginary State conducted on principles of pure Reason… Candide here finds all that the eighteenth-century Man of Reason could desire - a society in which all physical requirements are supplied, and where no one needs to go to law; where men have simplified religious belief to the lowest common denominator of natural religion; where neither crime nor war exist; where the achievements of science are respected; and where men enjoy equality and fraternity.  This was certainly the best of all possible worlds and Candide immediately recognised it; but he is unhappy in Paradise because the lovely Cunégonde is not there, and so his search continues.  (Introduction to Candide)

This passage contains a curious oversight: Candide had already been thrown out of the best of all possible worlds.  Before Cunégonde decided to instruct him in the joys of sex he was living in a paradise.  Thereafter he is exiled from true happiness, which he never quite regains.  Thus, although he can rationally appreciate this South America Eldorado it cannot be his version of the good life because it is unable to satisfy his emotions, his yearning for Cunégonde.  By remaining unfulfilled this desire destroys all his idealised abstractions; leading to their departure from Eldorado and the lost of their South American treasure.  For unlike his mentor Pangloss Candide is not able to live on abstract reason alone, and his version of the best of all possible worlds has to include the body of his exiled lover.  Candide’s passions are more earthy than his teacher’s, which the famous ending confirms: he is satisfied to live in a place rich in domesticity, with its house, its companions, and its hard work.  While his ideas must conform to these realities, thus the narrowness of his final conclusion – ideals must not transcend experience is the book’s last message.  Candide needs the solidity of a practical life.  Reason is too diaphanous for a person of his homely appetites, who is a man of action and not a thinker.  For in contrast to Pangloss, who carries an Eldorado inside his head wherever he goes, Candide needs to touch and feel and see what interests him.  Life in all its ruddy texture is more important than abstract thought; and a paradise without the lover for him is no paradise at all.

Here is the difference between master and pupil.  The meaning of the novel changing depending on where our attention is focussed: on the eponymous hero or on his teacher.  The title suggests that the central character is Candide, but the subtitle surely gives us a clue as to where we should concentrate our critical eye: on Pangloss.2  He is eternally optimistic because he never leaves his overly rational mind, and though battered by the end, not even the most aloof idealist can escape all of reality, he will forever remain inside his illusions, even after the book is back on the shelf; next to the Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire, published by New Directions.  He represents Optimism, a bizarre phenomenon, which is produced by a particular kind of abstract reason that elevates ideas above the banality of ordinary living, which it doesn’t use to test them.  Always he will be safe from harmful facts – he simply reasons them away.

Paradise is external to Candide.  Here is the crucial mistake in his early education, for it has given him the expectation that he can find a place that no longer exists - his quest will always be a chimera once the sex instinct has destroyed his childish innocence.  This is the anti-utopian line of Voltaire’s thought.  A paradisiacal existence is impossible once childhood is left behind, because thereafter we must rely on something outside our themselves for its fulfilment; it is thus something which we will never completely grasp – Cunégonde will not remain beautiful and innocent forever.  When his desires awake he experiences a sense of loss he cannot assuage: either Cunégonde is absent when he needs her or she has grown old and unattractive by the time they finally meet.  He can never get enough of her at the right time!  Always he will feel a lack that he cannot fill. Eternal love is impossible; while the search for it can be ruinous, for by ratcheting up our emotions it consumes the rest of our lives.  We can never have enough for long enough!  And the stronger the desire for utopia the greater the sense of our current deficiencies; passion the great enemy of the comfortable existence and the solid achievement; thus all those obstacles Candide has to overcome to see Cunégonde, which even includes his rejection of Eldorado.  Love and utopian reason (they are the same thing) actually destroys our sanity!  And achieves… nothing.  Thus Candide’s future: poverty, a marriage to an ugly and unloving wife, a house crowded with resentful dependents; and a philosophy that rules out much of what is marvellous in human culture.  His quest to regain his childhood has ended in disaster, which only hard work and his limited expectations can partially recover.  His maturity is to recognise the childish sterility of his early education, and junk it.

In contrast Pangloss never leaves his Garden of Eden.  Voltaire’s wit is to show the dullness of such a mentality.  He thus exposes the insipidity of a special kind thought, of which there was far too much in the enlightenment: utopian faith.  In the 18th century a belief in the absolute was transformed into a worship of abstract reason, now replacing god as the causal agent of the universe.  Suddenly there was an urge to look for laws that governed all existence; everything, it seemed, could be explained by some simple theories.  This tended, at least in the unsophisticated, to create a mindset that favoured the general over the particular.  A major character defect in Pangloss is his lack of curiosity about mundane facts.  He thus traps himself inside his own mind; and so condemns himself to always remain the same.  Unable to adequately respond to experience, think of how little effect all those gruelling travels have had on his thinking, he impoverishes his thought; his tendency to make all places appear identical – he projects the same reasoning, the same images, and the same mindset, onto everything he sees.3  The result is extraordinary: at the novel’s end Pangloss can make no distinction between the market garden and the Baron’s prosperous estate.  For him both are the best of all possible worlds.  No change here!  And in one sense he is right – reason can always find some underlying similarity; it is both its strength and its terrible weakness. 

A particular kind of rational optimist may be indifferent to human suffering, Professor Butt’s main theme, but equally they are opaque to the reality of the world because it is so heavily filtered through their consciousness.  Always they can explain it away.  This, at least for me, seems the more important insight; and is clearer to us than Voltaire’s contemporaries, who would have been distracted by the period detail.

The book is about two extremes.  All mind, which begins it, and no mind, which ends it; the novel a journey from the ascendancy of Pangloss to the dominance of Candide. 

However, do we have to choose between them?  Before making this decision we should to understand a little more about what is going on in this rightly classic work.

Sex defeats the reasoning faculty.  This is the true meaning of Candide’s quest, which will end only when he is worn out, and Cunégonde is no longer desirable; by which time he is too old for the idealism of his youth, his young liveliness reduced to an unimaginative bourgeois existence, whose only interest is his (boring) job.  Sex has destroyed him!  Those evanescent moments in young Cunégonde’s arms are as illusory as Pangloss’ ideas: the ephemeral nature of love cannot be made permanent.

The end is usually assumed to be an endorsement of Candide’s decision.   And it is true that the hero’s conclusion contains a cartload of good sense.  Pangloss is a foolish role model, and should be left alone to commune with his metaphysics in some forgotten university annex.  However, to think about the last section with detachment is to realise that Candide’s decision is really a confession of defeat.  Market gardening is only the best that he can do in the circumstances.  Goodbye abstract reason!   Get lost Sir Isaac Newton!  Isn’t this a failure?  Candide has been defeated by his illusions, both mental and emotional, and they have removed the spark of life from his soul – mentally he is worn out.  Intellectually he has given up.  Of course, in the circumstances of his own life, those mistaken paths that he has followed, he is right to choose hard work in his own garden as to best way to lead a fulfilling existence in the time that is still allotted to him.  It is the only option left to him.  A poor man has few choices. 

However, this is not the message we should take from what is an old person’s book, bitter at the fantasies that earlier led him astray.  We must learn a different lesson: find a wise teacher when we are young, and recognise puppy love for what it is – a temporary aberration.  Listen to me!  Grow up and get out here! and don’t look back.  Whatever you do don’t look back to your childhood innocence.  Life needs to be lived in all its richness (and pain), which means a little bit of memory and a large amount of hope; and an enormous dollop of present excitement.  Look at life!  And live it.  Now!

[i] What he calls the “popular perversions” of the “philosophy associated with the names of Leibniz, Shaftesbury, and Christian Wolff, and popularised both in France and England by Pope’s Essay on Man.”
[ii] The full title: Candide or Optimism.
[iii] Think of the Marxists who see the class struggle in every epoch, the Freudians who believe the Oedipus Complex applies to everyone; and the Darwinists who believe all evolution can be explained by natural selection…

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