Sunday, 7 April 2013

Modern Man

The best assessment I’ve read of Candide is by Italo Calvino.  It acknowledges the intellectual asceticism of the book’s conclusion; and so confirms by own views about it, which I had begun to doubt after reviewing some of the critical literature, discussed in previous posts.i  Always we judge others by our own judgements that we believe are categorical and just.  To find someone to agree with is like finding a comfortable sofa to sleep on undisturbed.  Zzzzzzzzzzzz….

And yet his article also suggests the reasons why many writers find the book so positive: its fast rhythm, which is indeed intoxicating, and its conclusion that appears to validate our modern scientific and capitalist age.  Although interestingly Calvino believes that we moderns hold an animus against the novel’s most famous phrase.

…’cultivate our garden’… is a very reductive moral; one which ought to be understood in its intellectual significance of being anti-metaphysical: you shouldn’t give yourself problems other than those that you can resolve with your own direct practical application.  And in its social significance: this is the first enunciation of work as the substance of all worth.  Nowadays the affirmation ‘il faut cultiver notre jardin’ sounds to our ears heavy with egotistical, bourgeois connotations: as inappropriate as could be, given our present worries and anxieties.  It is no accident that it is enunciated in the final page, almost after the end of this book in which work appears only as a curse and in which gardens are regularly devastated.  This too is a utopia, no less than the realm of the Incas: the voice of reason in Candide is nothing but utopian.  But it is also no accident that it is this sentence from the book that has become most famous, so much so that it has become proverbial.   We must not forget the radical epistemological and ethical change which the phrase signalled… man judged no longer by his relation to a transcendent Good or Evil but in the little or much that he can actually achieve.  And this is the source both of a work ethic that is strictly ‘productive’ in the capitalist sense of the word, and of a moral of practical, responsible and concrete commitment without which there are no general problems which can be resolved. In short, man’s real choices in life today stem from this book. (Why Read the Classics?)

What is particularly interesting about this passage is that something Calvino notes and takes for granted - Candide the petty capitalist - other commentators do not discuss at all.  I assume it is because of his political position somewhere on the Italian Left that he can see this obvious truth; although he then misinterprets it, believing all his readers will share his valuation of the bourgeoisie; inappropriately reading back into the novel a negative judgement about money-making and smug complacency.  Not so Italo!  You have been led astray by your politics. 

Politics can do strange things to our reasoning.  Thus, after first recognising the primitive bourgeois Calvino then denies him; arguing instead that Candide is the prototype for the modern workingman – “work as the substance of all worth” suggests the Marxian origin of this idea.  Calvino, it seems, must justify why he likes the book, and it isn’t the thing to celebrate the middle classes; forgetting for once that literature is an outcast on society’s fringes; loved by neither political parties nor corporate SMTs.

The reductionism of its message is offset by its modernity, and its glorification of labour, with those Marxist echoes of a working class millenarianism, with its promise that the Garden of Hesperides will be run by the workers.  Even Calvino, it seems, assumes a happy ending, despite his recognition of its “reductive moral”.  Candide saved by its metaphysical connotations and because it is the source book of our modern times.

Calvino’s analysis is suggestive.  Candide’s middle class aspirations could be the reason why so many critics think the book concludes on an affirmative note – it is a validation of their own lives and capitalist worldview.  While his conversion to British Empiricism is considered a triumph of common sense (especially if we are English or American), embodying the practical utility which is the essence of modern life.  Being bourgeois themselves they naturally accept the conclusion as positive; ignoring the details of Candide’s enormous loss and sacrifice – he has lost El Dorado and he has decided to give up abstract thought.  Like the old Universal Church the Baron’s estate, they believe, is both archaic and ridiculous.

The Baron von Thunder-ten-tronckh is ‘one of the most powerful lords of Westphalia, for his castle has a gate and windows (chapter 1).  The relative sophistication of the baron’s home – Westphalia is Voltaire’s model of perfect backwardness – is the result rather than the cause of his greatness; but Voltaire’s language mischievously pretends the reverse.  (Michael Wood, Introduction to Penguin edition of Candide)

And yet it was a paradise for those that lived there.  It is that paradise that we should not forget, no matter how absurd or poor it was in actual fact.  Keeping this always in view will temper our appreciation of the ending, so that without necessarily agreeing to Calvino’s political evaluation we will see that Candide has fallen from his aristocratic height to the lowly plains of the middling and working classes.  It is a fall for him.  Although a benefit for mankind - he will enrich us with his productive labour.

Calvino is right to note that Candide’s new maxim is an intellectual metaphor; although he is sharper than most in recognising that it replaces one abstraction (metaphysics) with another – utopia.  He then goes much further than I thought possible...  Even his little garden and circumscribed life is not a guarantee of success – it could be devastated by plague or war at any time.   Nowhere in this book is there an ideal solution; Candide’s final choice involves a mentally impoverished existence (me) that may only give the illusion of security (Calvino).  Prosperity and happiness are dreams that cannot be expected to last for long.  No practical guide to life or any philosophical system can guarantee security or happiness.  Candide is in the hands of an indifferent fate, which he can only do a little to influence – by working his own land with his own hands; and by keeping a great distance between himself and the centres of power, where success is even more unstable and short-lived.

This is pessimism of the first order!  Calvino has gone way beyond me!  And yet by reading the last two hundred years back into the book he can somehow redeem that conclusion - because the kind of mindset that accepts hard work on a Turkish farm has produced our contemporary society; an obvious example of sustained success; although a little battered when he wrote the review; thus his comments about bourgeois anxieties.

“High estate,’ said Pangloss, ‘is always dangerous, as every philosopher knows, for Eglon, King of Moab, was assassinated by Ehud, and Absalom was hanged by his hair and stabbed with three spears; King Nadab…

Voltaire is here more nuanced than Calvino, who is again reading back into the book the subsequent history of capitalism, with its enormous increase in speed of change and the concomitant rise in instability.  Voltaire is pessimistic – the intellect can’t help us to earn our living –, but he also has some faith in the security of practical labour.  There is a way for Candide to reduce his travails: he can grow things rather than waste time in arid talk; and he can remove himself far away from the powerful; those capricious and dangerous beings who are a constant threat to a little man’s health and contentment. Active and inconspicuous you might just survive.  Candide suggests that we should hide from the world of kings and state ministers.  Sound advice, but a trifle dull and uninspiring.  And very fatalistic, as the Dervish’s own philosophy, that late influence on its hero, acknowledges.

The book’s style undercuts this pessimistic message, which as Calvino notes is reminiscent of film comedy with its rapid editing (this guy is sharp!).  We are exhilarated when read it.  Here is the positive message which nowhere appears explicitly amongst the novel’s sentences.  It is our enjoyment transmuted through Voltaire’s literary brilliance into that famous ending.  Candide alone survives the author’s satire.  Michael Wood suggests something similar when discussing Roland Barthes criticisms of the book.

To cultivate the garden, then, is not simply to mind one’s own business, a wiser, more sophisticated version of the selfishness the book attacked at its outset.  It is to decide not to seek answers to questions that can have none; to remember that concrete ‘buts’ that lie in wait for every grand abstraction.  Still, it is hard not to feel there a certain blandness in this philosophy that refuses philosophy, a betrayal of Voltaire’s own best, angriest moments…  But the charge of intellectual complacency retains its force, it seems to me, only as long a we try to capture Voltaire’s thought, or more precisely, as long as we try to separate his thought from the movement of his prose.  Seeking to understand Voltaire, we forget what is like to read him.  At the level of the words, what Barthes calls luck turns into what Calvino calls speed, and the gaiety of the writing, far from diminishing the described horrors or providing an argument for ignoring them actually enhances them.  (Introduction to Penguin edition of Candide)

We mistake style for content.  We read our own joy into a conclusion that is qualified with pessimism, to say the least, and so give the book a positive message it does not have.  Voltaire’s irony lost in our own good humour.  We are so happy when we finish this work!

The great Italian writer also has other things to say in his little article.

Calvino suggests yet another definition of optimism; and so adds to the ones Michael Wood lists in his introduction: the good life requires that we be a little uncomfortable.

…if there was someone who by chance had nothing to complain about and had every good thing that life can give, he would end up like Signor Pococurante, the Venetian Senator, who turns up his nose at everything, finding fault where he ought only to find reason for satisfaction and admiration.  The really negative character in the book is the bored Pococurante; deep down Pangloss and Martin, though they give hopeless, nonsensical replies to questions, fight back against the torments and risks which are the stuff of life.                                                        

He overstates his case, but the general point is sound: however narrow and limited our views at least by asserting them, at least by actuating ourselves by doing some small things, we will be on the right side in the fight for life.  We need to unhappy in order to be happy!  How true, that is.

Do I detect an element of puzzlement, a hint of doubt, some scepticism; do I see your head shake in ironic self-regard?  Do I hear you say that I have changed my mind, and followed all these other writers into their earthly paradise…  “He’s given up his principles, surrendered his views in a slight skirmish over the Sauvignon Blanc and the canapés.”

No.  I was removed from the room after a particularly lengthy and heated argument about a passage of free indirect speech, during which some stray remarks were taken out of context…

My opinions have not changed.  I am still guided by my first impressions.  The overt theme of this book is bleak.  The life of the mind cannot save us from war, natural disasters and our own stupidities.  Ideas are superfluous in such a world.  I maintain that we cannot swallow this conclusion in its entirety.  First we must peel it, then remove its core, then eat it carefully, always aware of those stray pips…

What is strange is that so many academics do not fully appreciate how bleak this message is, or if they do (Michael Wood) go on to downplay it.  Why?  Because they believe such a conclusion is impossible?  Because they cannot conceive that an intellectual could hold such a devastatingly negative view of the intellect?  It is difficult to know.  What is clear is that they are trapped both by their talents and their profession into projecting a moral onto a book which itself condemns. Candide, when you coolly consider him, is little more than a disillusioned philistine.

How much we overlook when we read a novel from the promontory of our own premises.  It is like standing on a headland and only looking out to sea; indifferent to the countryside behind us.  We need an intelligent stranger to tap us on the shoulder; suggest that we turn around, and look, “yes, look at the white cottage.  It is there, right there, tucked up in the right hand corner of what I admit is a beautiful scene,” with its whitewashed cobbles stained with black hand prints (there is a coal hole round by the side); its windows cracked and the curtains like knitted quilts…  Curious now we look, stare even, and see an ugly woman standing at the open doorway, her features squashed up and folded in like geological strata.  We go closer, and hear her shouting out the most rank abuse… “You come out of your field, and you come in here with your muddy boots, and your dirty trousers, and you sit down on my clean chairs; and you demand tea and eat my freshly cooked biscuits, even though they’re not for you.  And look at those stinking hands.  Is that horseshit I smell?  You can laugh.  That’s all you do.  Working and eating, and not caring a fig about me, or this house, or the hours I spend keeping it clean.  And you keep doing it.  Again and again you do it.  You care!  You never once think of me.  Candide!  Are you listening!  Wash those fucking hands, I tell you!”


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