Monday, 1 April 2013

He Splatters the Girl in the Yellow Frock with My Sentences

I am always punching people up!  Not today.  Today I need time to recover.  Hit by heavy blows I sit on the ropes, to consider my ideas, as my opponent jabs and jabs away, and jabs again, at my arguments.  It is a powerful piecei with a nasty uppercut that sends me to the canvas… Michael Wood is good, light on his feet with a quick right hand he bloodies my theories and knocks a few of my paragraphs out cold.  Naturally, I disagree with him.

The argument is ingenious: the novel is saved from pessimism by Candide’s eternal pluckiness – he is always bouncing back from his misfortunes.  The book, it seems, is optimistic after all!  To achieve this conclusion, which requires using the full expanse of the word’s definition, while annexing some adjoining territory too, Michael Wood, as he himself notes, has to stretch the original meaning to fit his post modern purposes.  A tight t-shirt is being pulled over a large beer belly…

Voltaire, famously ridiculing the doctrine that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, is more subtly attacking (at least) three other, more insidious assumptions: that we can totally transcend our selfishness or provincialism; that a final accounting of the balance of good and evil in the world is achievable; that human philosophies bear some sort of direct relevance to human behaviour.  Optimism is involved in all of these enterprises, and although our modern sense is anachronistic, and Candide’s bitter definition is a mirror of his despair, these different meanings are not unrelated, as the mutilated slave might say; and it is their relation to each other and to the word’s older, official meaning that matters to us.  Indeed we scarcely see optimism in Candide except in the form of broad and damning travesties of it, and it takes an effort of the imagination to see that the doctrine isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, sheer parochial folly.  (Michael Wood’s introduction to Candide. My emphasis)

There is much here I agree with; especially the argument that optimism is not necessarily a foolish man’s philosophy; after all, without some sort of faith in the future it is difficult believe in even the possibility of one’s own work (let alone in any kind of progressive politics).  At the very least I must have faith that I can finish these sentences.  However, the way I arrive at this conclusion is strikingly different from Professor Wood’s, and involves a quite different evaluation of particularly Candide’s character; which in turn suggests an interpretation of the book that at times is almost the opposite to his.  This despite our agreement over fundamentals: I too don’t think we can save Optimism from Candide’s ferocious satire, although I do agree that we can protect optimism from its present day sceptics; providing we define it correctly.

When reading this book we must make a careful distinction between the doctrine of Pangloss and the character of Candide.  The first represents an idea the second experience; the conflict between them reflecting Voltaire’s own campaign on behalf of British empiricism against various forms of Cartesian rationalism.  We must be wary of conflating what are two very different qualities, and so risk confusing knowledge with reality; the one conjecture (however certain) and the other experienced fact (of which there is no doubt).ii  A striking aspect of Candide is that it embodies this very common mistake.  Indeed, it goes much further, and shows how knowledge can replace reality; Candide trying to fit his experiences into a pre-conceived theory that he believes is the absolute truth; Pangloss’ ideas given a certainty and permanence it is not possible for them to possess.  To conflate doctrine and character is to gloss over the distinctions between them; and risks misreading the book, which is a satirical attack on a particular cluster of ideas that were fashionable when it was written.  Ideas that were complacent, incautious, and opaque to the recalcitrant ugliness of contemporary reality, and which had evolved within a general atmosphere of comfort and optimism – the future, it was believed, would sort all the bad things out.iii

Professor Wood wants to rescue optimism from the ferocity of Voltaire’s attack, and uses some clever arguments to do so.  They are good enough to raise doubts about my own interpretations; although ultimately I think they too are susceptible to sharp criticism.  Bleeding at the nose and with a cut above the left eye my piece still stands, protecting its face behind the gloves, waiting for a drop in concentration, an opening…

Before we start round five: a warning.  Candide, as I have previously argued, should be treated as an exception in Voltaire’s oeuvre.  To use quotations from his other works may therefore not prove very much about this particular book; indeed they could easily lead as astray.  When writing about Pangloss, Pococurante and the rest we thus must be extra careful when we quote.  Voltaire in this case his own worst witness.

Keeping this danger sign always in view let us now travel around Michael Wood’s arguments. 

His begins by outlining three different kinds of optimism.  The first variety is defined as, “that all is as it has to be.” Voltaire, the professor writes, had no argument with this kind of optimism, he “merely regarded it as tautological.”   This may be correct.  However, this definition actually misses a vital change in the meaning of this phrase, which occurs during the course of the narrative.  In the first chapter Pangloss is making a quite specific empirical claim: that the Baron’s estate is the best place in the world; an assertion that appears to be supported by the facts.  It is the best of all possible worlds for its present inhabitants.  By the last chapter this meaning has undergone a significant diminution; mirroring the decline in Candide’s fortunes it is reduced to a mere platitude: “that all is as it has to be.”  The value of the phrase has collapsed!  The doctrine has been emptied of all content; and Pangloss is reduced to uttering tautologies, a sign that his influence has waned. 

Michael Wood argues that if we accept this (attenuated) definition of optimism there is nothing much wrong with it; it is simply unexceptional.  Considered as a general statement outside of Candide’s narrative context I agree.  But consider the change in the concept’s meaning during the progress of the novel and we begin to doubt his assertion.   Part of Voltaire’s critique of Leibniz’s dictum is to subject it to semantic decay.  Its failure precisely this easy fall into empty platitude.  Once it meant something.  It was making an evaluative judgement of the Baron’s estate and gave Candide a worldview to believe in.  When the book ends it means nothing at all, a superfluous phrase that simply states the obvious, and is rejected by the erstwhile pupil as irrelevant to his needs, now that both his circumstances and his philosophy have changed.  That is, it is not the definition we need to consider but the trajectory of its transformation.  The slide into platitudinous nonsense, the dictum’s gradual loss of sense as it accompanies Candide on his journeys, tells us exactly what Voltaire thinks of it: experience makes it worthless.  “That all is as it has to be” is a definition that represents defeat: Pangloss’s metaphysics has been brought down from the elevated heights of wisdom, a catchall explanation for the universe, to the farmyard of commonplaces, where it no longer has the power to instruct or to inspire.  It is simply ignored:

‘That is well said, replied Candide, ‘but we must cultivate our garden.’iv

In this edition a note is attached to this famous conclusion.  It quotes Flaubert, who captures, to my mind at least, its message perfectly:

The end of Candide is for me incontrovertible proof of genius of the first order; the stamp of the master is in that laconic conclusion, as stupid as life itself.

“As stupid as life itself.”  Exactly!  Yet how few commentators notice this; failing to consider the full implications of Candide’s conversion to practical living – what does it actually mean to give up philosophy for root vegetables?

Professor Wood’s second argument in favour of a more nuanced kind of optimistic philosophy is that it can elucidate the differences between a general trend and a narrow solipsism.

…that all is well implies a perspective – well for whom? – and may supply a useful corrective to limitations of vision.  The world doesn’t have to be a bad place because things are going badly for me.  Voltaire himself was drawn to this view earlier in his career.

He then writes that while Voltaire was initially attracted to this idea he later rejected it because of its…

heartlessness and a belief that the claim, even if true, couldn’t be tested, and worse, couldn’t be articulated without incurring some sort of complicity with the unacceptable, too eager an embrace of the idea that certain horrors are not only unavoidable but necessary.

This seems right.  Michael Wood’s wider argument in support of this kind optimism doubtfully supported by a book which goes out of its way to cast doubt on all generalisations; it’s almost as if Voltaire was wary of their inbuilt tendency to expand into a generalised vacuity.  Again, we must be cognisant of the specificity of Candide, which is sceptical to its core about all philosophical thinking when applied to daily life; an exercise it shows to be both delusional and woefully inadequate – our lives cannot be reduced to a simple theorem.  Although fully aware of Voltaire’s views Professor Wood nevertheless believes he can clinch his argument for optimism, and quotes the Enlightenment scholar Peter Gay, who argues that pessimism is Voltaire’s real enemy because it negates his practical philosophy, to support his own position.

Peter Gay, in Voltaire’s Politics, goes so far as to say that ‘Voltaire’s objection to “whatever is, is right” was not to its complacent optimism but to its half-complacent, half-despairing pessimism…  Voltaire’s attack on “optimism” was an attack on pessimism in the name of a philosophy of activity’.  In other words, Voltaire saw pessimism as just too easy.  The word pessimism, I should add, was not used until 1794, and appears to have been coined by Coleridge, although the frame of mind clearly existed long before, and Voltaire knew he didn’t like it.

As I have previously argued, it is a treacherous business quoting Professor Gay on Candide; his general arguments shipwrecked on the reefs of the novel’s particular details; the individual scenes often contradicting, too often sinking, the abstract ideas he often projects, too often floats, onto them.  Pace Peter Gay: Candide doesn’t debunk pessimism.  

On the contrary, it has dark and highly cynical thoughts about thinking, especially of the kind carried out by intellectuals like Pangloss, who can comprehend the world only through the filter of their own ideas.  This deficiency, hidden when reality and theory appear to correspond, becomes readily apparent when facts and doctrine radically diverge after the story leaves the Baron’s idyllic estate.v  The strain eventually becomes unbearable, and the climax is Candide’s loss of faith when meets a new master, the Turkish farmer.  Although this repudiation takes nearly the whole length of the book Pangloss’ problem is obvious almost from the beginning.  Trapped inside a doctrine he cannot escape, and devoid of emotional sympathy,vi he is unable to properly engage with the changing realities he constantly encounters; his preconceived theory first a means of avoiding these discomforting facts, later a sign of his complete intellectual failure as his obsessive adherence to his ideas eventually abolishes all rational thought until he can state only banal commonplaces; dressed up, of course, in the fanciest of arguments.  Candide is an attack both on a quite specific doctrine and on a particular type of thinking which reduces a plausible theory to a stupid dogma because its advocate won’t properly engage with the facts that contradict it; more interested in defending his ideas than learning about the world; the book a satire on the worthlessness of the abstract intellect in practical affairs (on this point Michael Wood and myself agree) in large part because of this tendency.  To mix all this up with the character of Candide, with its youthful propensity to bounce back from any adversity, is, in my view, to misread the book; and belies its true pessimism; at least for those who believe in the life and value of an independent mind.  Of course Candide survives relatively unscathed at the end.  But just look at what kind of person he has become: an unreflective farmer more interested in swedes than Sir Isaac Newton.  Flaubert was right: the conclusion, Candide’s new wisdom, is “as stupid as life itself.”  Exactly!

Professor Wood emphasises a point I have only cursorily regarded:

Pangloss insists on his system not because he believes in it but because it is his system.  It would not do for him to recant, he says, and in this statement Voltaire is offering us a sly definition of philosophy: never having to say you are wrong.  ‘I hold firmly to my original views,’ Pangloss says in the last pages (chapter 28).  ‘After all I am a philosopher.’  And Voltaire, in an uncharacteristically informative moment, tell [sic] us that Pangloss maintains his position ‘while believing nothing of the kind’ (chapter 30).

I think this assessment is correct, although it needs qualification.  To see why we must quote Pangloss in full:

‘I am a philosopher after all: it would not do for me to recant, given that Leibniz is incapable of error, and that pre-established harmony is moreover the finest thing in the world – not to speak of the plenum and the material subtilis.

Pangloss, as John Butt noted, is a disciple not an original thinker.  It is the reason why he cannot give up his theory: he is dependent on a worldview that is not is own and which he cannot afford to pull apart as he lacks the talent to reconstruct it, incapable, as he is, of creative thought.  Pangloss is not simply being dogmatic here.  He can’t give up his views unless he gives up Leibniz, who by definition must be right.  His ideas are a faith, and to deny them could result in a potential mental collapse; akin to a Marxist or Freudian recanting their beliefs and the masters that go with them.  Pangloss is being honest, and thus inadvertently reveals his intellectual impotence – he believes in a theory he doesn’t really understand; a fairly typical scenario. 

It is useful to apply Michael Wood’s second definition of optimism to this passage.  What now appears to Pangloss as implausible could still be true if looked at from a wider perspective; his current views limited by his own narrow intellect (a deficiency he himself may recognise).  Being a genius Leibniz would inevitably understand the universe in all its ramifications and would see further and deeper than his disciple whose natural disposition is to take his master’s theories on trust – the greatest thinkers have an intuitive grasp of reality that is usually absent in their followers, who tend to be overly rational and academic, and who generally accept the assumptions on which their guru’s grand theory is based.  Their task often limited to filling in the details, and refining it.vii  Pangloss may no longer believe in his theory.  However, it is the only one that he has got; that is why he must stick with it, even if his ideas have become detached from his actual experiences.  Another characteristic common amongst intellectuals; many of whom don’t live out their ideas, preferring to separate their abstractions from the rest of their lives; thus the not unusual phenomenon of the middle class Marxist who writes about Lenin on Friday and shops in Selfridges on Saturday.  Pangloss represents this familiar type of thinker, although he’s been put under an uncommon amount of strain: most of his confederates can live with the contradiction between their ideas and their actions because they suffer very little pressure to integrate them into a single harmonious whole.viii  Pangloss is not so lucky.  It is the reason he sounds crazy in the end.  He is forced to emphatically deny reality.  Although if we read him carefully we notice that while keeping to the outer forms of his arguments he has subtly changed their content: he now justifies events rather than explaining and defining them.  So clever!  And typical of an intellectual, who is able to use reason to justify itself.  Facts don’t matter if theories have to be defended!

Pangloss’ confession also suggests that these ideas are too compelling and too intellectually beautiful to give up.  This is a truth with which any serious thinker would concur; although being serious they are more likely to sacrifice such beauty if the evidence proves their theories erroneous.

Chapter 30 puts me in great difficulty.

Pangloss conceded that he had suffered horribly, all his life, but having once maintained that everything was going splendidly he would continue to do so, while believing nothing of the kind.

Pumph! Pumph!  Pow!  One!  Two!  Three!  Four!  Five!  Six!  Seven!  Eight… Numbers like punches, the referee’s too insistent metronome, as slowly and unsteadily I drag myself off the canvas…

The bell goes!  Relief!  I return to my corner and my trainer quotes from the earlier Penguin edition.

Pangloss allowed that his sufferings had been uniformly horrible: but as he had once maintained that everything would turn out right in some marvellous way, he still maintained it would, however little he believed it.

The meanings of these two translations are quite different.  In the latter (vestiges of which can be seen in the former, although obscured by the change in tense) Pangloss is making the reasonable point that although the facts appear to be against him it is still possible that the doctrine may be true;ix and I think we can speculate further and say that he needs to believe in the truth of his doctrine; an intuition Michael Wood confirms when writing about Eldorado.

They say this is ‘probably the land where all is well, for clearly such a place has to exist’ (chapter 17).  Has to exist?  The place doesn’t have to exist in material reality, and as far we know it never has.  But it does, it seems, have to exist as an expression of need and longing, because we cannot do without the dream of perfection it embodies.  Voltaire includes it in his book for just this reason.

Pangloss’ position is similar to that of Vidal’s in My Night with Maud.  Playing around with Pascal’s Wager Vidal argues that even if there was only a 20% chance of history being on his (Marxist) side he would still believe in it.  His life needs this hope!  A theory has been reduced to a religious faith through its inability to adapt sufficiently to historical change.  This nuance is far more interesting than a simple reference to an unwieldy dogma; because it indicates what happens to these kinds of metaphysical theories over time: they start off as a compelling explanation of reality but gradually become a religion; belief replacing rational argument as the evidence mounts up against them.  In the 20th century the most obvious example of such a trajectory is socialism, and its ossification into state worship by the late 1970s.  Today we are watching something similar happen to Neo-liberalism.  It is a process that is as old as the oldest society.x

This intransigence in the face of reality may explain a crux that Michael Wood notes in the book: Cunégonde is the only character that ages in the novel.  Here is the reason he gives.

She is clearly the victim of more than ordinary aging; the victim of her author, we might say.  Not only has she not aged well, she has become an anti-beauty.

The fairy tale has turned sour, but the sourness has its reasons.  The tale was deluded to begin with, a distracting dream or retarded fantasy. Cunégonde is the withered goal of Candide’s longing, indeed she is what happens to all longing that pursues only an idea of a person or a passion.  She has to change not in order to disappoint Candide or to allow him to do the right thing after all, but order to remind us that the objects of our desire have histories of their own, and histories we may not like.  She is the incarnation of the book’s most cruel ‘but’.xi  Candide finds his great love again, but she is ugliness personified, and has become nasty into the bargain.  The unfortunate Cunégonde loses her looks, it turns out, for precisely the same reasons as the unfortunate Paquette retains hers: appearances alter or don’t alter, but they are never more than appearances, a place to start but not to end.”

This explanation seems possible, but feels a little contrived (and a little confusing – I’m not altogether clear about that last sentence).  The solution to the problem is surely in Wood’s insightful word “anti-beauty”.  An ideal becomes its opposite if pursued fanatically – a communist utopia becomes a communist hell when it is actually built.  And there is also something else…

Cunégonde is a metaphor for Candide’s state of mind when he eventually finds her: self-hate at his own folly.  He gave up Eldorado for an image of her when she was innocent and beautiful.  He gave up paradise at precisely the moment that past no longer existed.  He undertakes a world tour full of cruelty to be with a woman… who is prematurely old and ugly (exactly what we would expect after all those rapes and tortures; only his fanaticism would blind him to that reality).  Waking up from his illusions a reaction is inevitable; and we would expect him exaggerate her ugliness and her horrible character.  The prize is not worth the effort.  This “anti-beauty” represents love turned sour.  It is also the realisation that he went wrong, almost from the start – from the day he was kicked out of the Baron’s castle.  A young life wasted on a dream!  This is what happens to an idea that is pursued to its ultimate limit, and then rejected when its absurdity becomes obvious – in this case when it is achieved.  The best of all possible girls turns out to be an old hag; as the best of all possible worlds turns out to be a poor farm on the outskirts of civilisation.  Voltaire’s irony is very cruel.  While Professor Wood has made a characteristic but crucial error:

The tale was deluded to begin with, a distracting dream or retarded fantasy.

Not so!  Cunégonde was beautiful once.  This is no delusion or fantasy.  She was lovely on her father’s estate!  She then loses her beauty and her sweet demeanour because of her experiences (a nod at British empiricism, with its assumption of our essentially plastic nature).  However, Candide continues to see her in his mind’s eye as the young and lovely girl he first knew.  He is turning her into a fantasy because his image is fixed on a past that has been transformed out of all recognition.  She has been turned into a dream because Candide will not adjust his ideas to the changing realities.  He then wakes up when they meet in Turkey.  Naturally he exaggerates what he sees – it is the shock of disenchantment.

The Theo Cuffe translation is very emphatic, and suggests that Pangloss is an out and out cynic, which seems hardly creditable, especially as he extols his theory a few paragraphs later; first to the greatest philosopher in Turkey, then to justify their new existence on the farm.  Are we witnessing a single revelatory moment of truth, when the mask slips and the blotched and pinched and penurious face slithers out from behind the otherworldly visage?  This seems unlikely.  Maybe Pangloss is himself confused; or perhaps he doesn’t express himself very well, so that intending to talk like Professor Butt he ends up speaking like Theo Cuffe.  Here is a conflict in interpretation I am not competent to judge.  Although it is clear that such blatant cynicism doesn’t fit easily with Pangloss’ character, which is all of a piece, and is consistent throughout the book.  He simply doesn’t change very much (he is quite different from Candide); his mental life impervious to the world’s influence, so that his theories are still intact, albeit severely damaged, when he quotes them in the final paragraph.  

Pangloss is too little affected by experience for his views to be radically altered by it.  Particular kinds of personality are attracted to particular types of theory (extremists tend to believe in extreme theories), so that those who are indifferent to reality may well believe in ideas that bare little relationship to it.  At the very least they may find it psychologically easier to uphold beliefs that are massively contradicted by the facts.  The result?  The fundamental nature of their faith is not affected by their experiences, is indeed defended against all threats to it; Pangloss’ last speech a perfect demonstration of this strategy.  Once characters like these have acquired a thought-system, where its acquisition is experienced as a revelation and not as an analytical process, it cannot be allowed to change in its core principles – thus a Marxist will always believe in the class struggle.  No wonder Candide’s teacher is so reluctant to divorce Leibniz!  The key moment for such characters is when they first acquire the theory… Could Pangloss really accept a set of ideas that is consistently contradicted by the facts of his own experiences, and from the very beginning of his life, and before he believed in them?  This too seems unlikely.  Has the translation gone too far?  Did Pangloss really suffer terribly “all his life” (Theo Cuffe) or was it that his “sufferings had been uniformly horrible” (John Butt)?  If they were so terrible and long lasting why didn’t he take up pessimism as his first intellectual position?  We understand and can accept that because his terrible afflictions came after he discovered Leibniz’s ideas it was too late for him to ditch them.  However, for Pangloss to believe in the best of all possible worlds when he was already suffering great hardship seems perverse in the extreme.  It also grossly contradicts his statements in the first chapter.

He could prove to wonderful effect that there was no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, His Lordship the Baron’s castle was the finest of castles and Her Ladyship the best of all possible baronesses.  (Theo Cuffe translation)

We can only assume, if he suffered “all this life”, that Pangloss is here lying to his pupil.  Is this possible?  If this is indeed the case we need an essay on his psychopathology.  We need to resurrect J.G. Ballard to write a novel about it…   John Butt’s translation, which explicitly relates Pangloss’ words to his experiences since he left the Baron’s estate, feels more credible.

When he returns his attention to Candide Michael Wood is keen to argue that he represents the essential optimism of vigorous life.

Candide is not complacent, and can’t remain ignorant, but he does find it hard to believe the world is a bad place if his own affairs are going well.  Voltaire remorselessly returns to this point, as strict with his likeable hero as he is with everyone else, but also interested in the energy of self-concern, as long as it is combined with curiosity and compassion….  [H]appiness and misery are contingent, local and material; philosophical optimism and conventional melancholy are postures.  There is certainly a selfishness in Candide’s repeated resorting to Pangloss’s system; but there is also an ultimate moral health in his inability to be unhappy for long, even if his own intelligence says he should be.

This is the strong argument for optimism based on the character of the hero.  I don’t necessarily disagree with this passage, but question how far it reflects the main theme of the book.

It is only in the last chapter that Candide escapes from Pangloss’ influence.  Until then the hero still sees the world through his teacher’s philosophical sunglasses.  He is a youth and immature.  Although it his particular character, with its curiosity and energy (although I’m not so sure about compassion – too often Candide looks like an unlucky tourist), that gives him the means to eventually escape his master's intellectual spell and change his views.  But what views!  I agree absolutely that there is a difference between engaging with the world through experience and seeing it only through abstraction; and that taking a purely philosophical line to daily life can become a posture.xii  However… while the ending does laud the local and material, it also represents a terrible defeat.  Mind has died!  Body rules!  It is hard work in one’s own garden not abstract thought that will save our hero.  This is a non-intellectual solution that is first broached by “the greatest philosopher in Turkey” when he responds to Pangloss’ question about the meaning of life.

‘Master,’ said [Pangloss], ‘we have come to ask a favour.  Will you kindly tell us why such a strange animal as man was ever made?’

‘What has that got to do with you?’ said the dervish.  ‘ Is it your business?’

‘But surely, reverend father,’ said Candide, ‘there is a great deal of evil in the world.’

‘And what if there is?’  said the dervish.  ‘When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt, do you suppose he worries whether the ship’s mice are comfortable or not?’

‘What ought to be done, then?’ said Pangloss.

‘Keep your mouth shut!’ said the dervish.

Candide’s decision to cultivate his own garden is only a slight emendation of this advice – he will ignore all worldly philosophising and concentrate on his own petty concerns, which may prove materially fruitful.  This decision in line with the general thrust of the Dervish’s fatalistic remarks: he will keep his mouth shut!  No “big talk” on this farm, please.

Professor Wood like most (all?) commentators assumes the ending is a happy one, as the natural buoyancy of Candide’s character triumphs in the end – “he cannot be unhappy for long.”xiii  This may be so.  However, if we separate out the personality of Candide from the theories of Pangloss we may reach a very different conclusion: the local and the contingent has triumphed leaving a simple man working on his own farm; and that is all that is left to him.  No grand theory of human progress, no Enlightenment Paris, no movement for social reform.  All the ideals have been vanquished.  And if we accept Professor’s Wood’s account we should celebrate this intellectual decay, for Pangloss’ ideas are only “postures”, he argues.  But is life so simple?  It is easy to ridicule romantic poets and show that a person’s principles are often elaborate camouflage for laziness or indifference.  Although, if we are not careful, we can risk mistaking knowledge for reality, and conflating the person with the ideas they germinate.  Ideas have a validity of their own, irrespective of their owner’s character.  They tend to have a depth and range that is bigger than our ordinary experiences, imbuing them with a wealth otherwise denied us.  We need the buzz of abstract thought!  We also need ideals and grand theories.  They give us the energy and focus to change our local environment; although we must always make a distinction between what is utopian and what is practical politics.xiv  Pangloss’s failure to see this distinction his biggest mistake; Candide then drawing the wrong conclusions from his master’s failure…

There is something sad in the famous Leibniz being chucked over for the wisdom of a Turkish farmer who has no interest outside his own livelihood; the universe narrowed down to the market value of his carrots and red onions.  This is the irony in Voltaire’s ending that the commentators are refusing to see.  They should listen to Gustave Flaubert: “stupid as life itself.”  He knew a bourgeois when he saw one.xv

[i] The introduction to a new Penguin translation of Candide.
[ii] “I realised that all the inferences used both in common sense and in science are of a different sort from those used in deductive logic, and are such that, when the premises are true and the reasoning correct, the conclusion is only probable.”  (Bertrand Russell, My Philosophical Development)
            This is not a sceptical position – Russell by the end of his life believed in the reality of empirical experience and the possibility of science as real knowledge.
[iii] For details see my Too Rich for the Rags this Shopkeeper Sells?  For much of the reasoning behind this essay see all my previous posts on Candide.  For a good account of the change in the intellectual climate, and the rise in a general sense of benevolence, read The Eighteenth Century Background by Basil Willey.
            Of course Professor Wood knows this.  We disagree on where he places his emphasis – on the character of Candide or the doctrine of Pangloss.
[iv] I prefer the John Butt translation: ‘True enough.’  It is far more laconic.
[v] For Michael Wood the Baron’s estate represents,
            “…optimism in its crassest and most comfortable form: a combination of ignorance and complacency, which asserts that all is well everywhere because I’m doing pretty well in the tiny corner of a world I happen to know.”
            True. Yet such interpretations are too quick to run past this short-sighted selfishness.  It is almost as if they are embarrassed by it.  These views may be stupid and they may be egoistical, but they also represent the truth for Pangloss and his pupils.  However wrong they are in the wider world they are true for these characters.  This is what we have to recognise and accept.
[vi] Based on the assumption that feeling is thinking; an idea influenced by both Hume’s and Locke’s theories that new knowledge can only be acquired through the senses.
[vii] The genius on the other hand questions the conventional assumptions; his new theories arising from his doubts.
For discussion on different types of intellect see my Russian Climate.
[viii] For extensive comment on this phenomenon see my Dropout Boogie. 
See also a brilliant discussion by Bernard Williams, where he argues that unlike classical Greece it is the nature of modern society not to be harmoniously integrated into a single whole, and thus it is not possible to apply classical ethical philosophy to the present day (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy).  Modern day efforts to keep life and thought separate are helped by this fragmentation, which in turn protects our theories from serious attack.  It is one reason for the growth of modern irrationalism.
[ix] It has a family resemblance to Michael Wood’s second argument for optimism.
[x] For a related discussion, see Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, where he argues that taboos in Polynesian societies lost meaning through historical change – by the time of Captain Cook no one could give a reason why they existed, as the social structure that gave rise to them had disappeared.
[xi] Michael Wood discusses the different uses of this word.
[xii] This wording is deliberate.  They can become not are “postures”.  To argue that Pangloss is simply playing at ideas is to miss the compelling truth of his doctrine in Chapter one.  When the book begins his theories seem right.  It is why they have such a hold over Candide.
            Martin too seems to be correct in this opinions: his pessimism does seem to explain life outside the Baron’s castle.
            The problem of both these men is that they don’t adapt their ideas to changing circumstances.  They see the world within their own narrow perspective, develop a theory that explains it, but then are unable to adapt it to take into account both the wider world and changes to their own fortunes.  It is the lack of sufficient movement in their thought that is their most serious weakness – ever changing life inevitably falsifies it.
[xiii] Summarising the ideas of Jean Sareil he writes:
            Candide is a satire, not a confession.  Voltaire is not giving us his opinion about the universe; he is looking at persistent problems whose solutions, including the ones he has himself proposed, do not satisfy him.”
            This seems right.  However, Professor Wood then goes on to write,
            “Voltaire’s gaiety is a matter of style rather than philosophy, the happy ending is at once ironic and an invitation not to overdo our sense of misery.”
            Although full of qualifications and nuances the conclusion is reasonably clear: the ending is a (moderately?) happy one.   Can we really be so sure?
[xiv] Noam Chomsky has an interesting discussion about the difference between ideals and goals in his Power and Prospects.  Ideals are not meant to be realised, he argues, because they are impossible.
[xv] Roland Barthes made a similar point:
            “[Voltaire] ceaselessly dissociated intelligence and intellectuality, asserting that the world is an order if we do not try too much to order it, that it is a system only if we renounce systematizing it: this conduct of mind has had a great career subsequently: today we call it anti-intellectualism.”  (Quoted in Michael Wood’s introduction.)

No comments:

Post a Comment