Saturday, 13 April 2013

Talk About the Translator!

Aldous Huxley, clever as always, situates the meaning of Candide not so much in the book itself as in the era of its readers.  It is the Zeitgeist that decides its semantic fate!  A few years either way enough to change our views…

In the good old days, before the Flood, the history of Candide’s adventures seemed to us quiet, sheltered, middle-class people only a delightful phantasy, or at best a high-spirited exaggeration of conditions which we knew, vaguely and theoretically, to exist, to have existed, a long way off in space and time.  But to read the book today; you feel yourself entirely at home in its pages.  It is like reading a record of the facts and opinions of 1922; nothing was ever more applicable, more completely to the point.  The world in which we live is recognizably the world of Candide and Cunégonde, of Martin and the Old Woman who was a Pope’s daughter and the betrothed of the sovereign Prince of Massa-Carrara…

Men, we thought, had grown up from the brutal and rampageous hobbledehoyism of earlier ages and were now as polite and genteel as Gibbon himself.  We now know better.  Create a hobbledehoy environment and you will have hobbledehoy behaviour; create a Gibbonish environment and everyone will be, more less, genteel.  It seems obvious, now.  And now that we are living in a hobbledehoy world, we have learnt Martin’s lesson so well that we can look on almost unmoved at the most appalling natural catastrophes and at exhibitions of human stupidity and wickedness which would have aroused us in the past to surprise and indignation.  Indeed, we have left Martin behind and are become, with regard to many things, Pococurante. (On Re-Reading Candide in On the Margin)

Huxley has inadvertently uncovered a paradox in the novel.  If we accept that the environment shapes our behaviour (British empiricism the foundational philosophy for the Neo-Darwinian belief in natural selection) then Candide’s message that we adapt to circumstances, that we make the best of what little is available, is simply an acknowledgement that in a beastly environment we will become beasts.  Indeed, in Candide’s descent from the top of Pangloss’ metaphysical pedestal to the tilled soil of his practical philosophy we do see the decline and eventual fall of the abstract intellect.  By the book’s end there is no value left in it.  And yet, it is precisely his kind of practical almost mindless work that leads to the Garden of Eden that is the modern age.  Calvino tells us so.  His view today’s conventional wisdom.

And yet… did it really?  If Candide tilled his garden without the aid of modern fertilizers, canals, then railways, and now refrigerated container ships and airplanes, would he and his descendants have been able to prosper so mightily for the last three centuries?  This seems unlikely.  Isn’t it rather that because Man changes, indeed overcomes, his environment that he can enjoy his extraordinary successes?  And where precisely does this transformative power originate if not from that strange and fragile thing: the abstract mind?  Science, which both Newton and Leibniz helped to found, the source of our modern technology, which transforms the world into a man-made machine; so that today we are the masters and not the slaves of natural forces.  We prosper because we create our environments not give into them.

Adapting to realities is not enough!  In an age of barbarisms we have to transcend our local environment if we are to retain even a modicum of civilisation.  We have to fight to be human in a world of plants and animals and uneducated thugs.  Candide, it seems, has lost that fight by the novel’s end, overwhelmed by his unfortunate experiences.  Surely we have not followed him.

Of course, if you accept my reading of the book you will also accept that the author’s message is far more ambivalent than any literal interpretation of that famous conclusion.  You may even agree that Candide has survived by becoming something of a brute himself.  Having adapted to his soulless and ugly circumstances he now submits to a life lacking all finesse and beauty; his survival and future prosperity requiring that he lives without art and philosophy; as he now lacks the leisure time to develop the intellect and enrich the imagination.  Candide’s farm the mirror image of the Baron’s great estate, which suggests its weakness: they are two extremes that are incapable of dealing with the rich perversity of a world that defies the easy categorisations of the salon philosophes and the uneducated citizenry.  Calvino was right: Candide’s garden is a utopia.  It thus surely follows that Voltaire must therefore reject it – only the rough and ready mix of both the practical and the abstract intellects can allow us to both understand and master our recalcitrant little worlds.

Huxley living in an atmosphere closer to that of Voltaire’s times sucks on a far bitterer sweet than our contemporary critics.  The delight still exists, of course, that style will not go away, but the feel of the book has become more pessimistic; so that even the ending is affected by it.

And what is the remedy?  Mr. Le Docteur Ralph would have us believe that it consists in the patient cultivation of our gardens.  He is probably right.  The only trouble is that the gardens of some of us seem hardly worth cultivating.  The garden of the bank clerk and the factory hand, the shop-girl’s garden, the garden of the civil servant and the politician – can one cultivate them with much enthusiasm?  Or, again, there is my garden, the garden of literary journalism.  In this little plot I dig and delve, plant, prune, and finally reap – sparsely enough, goodness knows! – from one year’s end to another.  And to what purpose, to whom for a good, as the Latin Grammar would say?  Ah, there you have me.

There is a passage in one of Tchekov’s letters which all literary journalists should inscribe in letters of gold upon their writing desks.  “I send you,” says Tchekov to his correspondent, “Mihailovsky’s article on Tolstoy….  It’s a good article, but it’s strange: one might write a thousand such articles and things would not be one step forwarder, and it would still remain unintelligible why such articles were written.”

Il faut cultiver notre jardin.  Yes, but suppose one begins to wonder why?

In a few sentences Huxley has located the weakness of Candide’s solution – cultivating one’s own rather small garden may not amount to very much at all.  That he can do so is because of his unusual taste for self-criticism, a character trait rare amongst the literary and academic establishments, whose figures are more likely to seek validations rather than critiques of their normally productive lives.

Huxley also stimulates a question that neither I, nor any of the critics that I have read, has considered: what effect does the translator Monsieur le Docteur Ralph have on the book?  Accepting that it is mostly a literary joke, might there also be other reasons for it being translated from a foreign language?  Are all the characters really Germans, and does this allow for a little national condescension at all their follies?  Are they all meant to be alien; strange beings that we are supposed to criticise, each in their different ways? Is Candide’s epiphany about muddy boots, dirty hands, and animal dung, meant to be seen by its French readers as an unattractive solution to a problem they thought they could solve quite easily?  Is he supposed to be as ridiculous as Pangloss?  Another extreme no one should follow?  And why, since we can't stop asking questions,  is that although the rest of the book is a satire, the conclusion is often taken to be serious… is it only because it conforms to our own late 20th century prejudices?

We could go further.  In fact, let’s do so!  Is Monsieur le Docteur Ralph the author of Candide?  A foreigner who, having the clairvoyance of the stranger, sees deeper than the local population, but who also gets some of the important things wrong; and wrong in a cataclysmically big way, thus his mistaken belief that Candide is a hero because he represents his own bourgeois prejudices against metaphysical speculation and hoity-toity ideas.  Is the good doctor the source of all the value judgements in this book?  His readers then mistaking his opinions for Voltaire’s, who was too sly and sophisticated to deliver such a literalist paean to a simple farmer….

The new Penguin translation has an interesting section on the names in the book. Candide’s suggests his doubleness.

Candide (Latin candidus, ‘white’ ‘pure’, ‘beautiful’, and, by extension, ‘honest’ etc.) is he who is open to all experience.  The term was used frequently in the contemporary French translation of Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding to suggest the self as an innocent sheet of white paper on which experience will write its story.  Voltaire often employs the word for its echoes of Horace, for whom candidus means unimpeachably ‘sincere’; but elsewhere he also uses candide in an emergent modern sense, with a pejorative suggestion of gullibility.

Candide is as carried away with new ideas as Pangloss is caged up inside his old ones.  The Turkish farm another plausible leap into the all too captivating newness…  Will he think his current enthusiasm such a good idea in ten years time?  Candide is the precursor of that modern fool – the fashion victim.  His eyes always attracted by the latest glitzy idea.  Candide, when we look at him with detachment, is too adaptable, too overly affected by his environment, to be a great hero.  He is not steadfast enough in his principles, although to be fair he marries Cunégonde.  Indeed, in many ways he is something of a scoundrel.  Thus he kills people on the spur of the moment, while he leaves El Dorado not only because he is unhappy but because he wants to use its riches to be a superior person in Europe.  Only when he is exhausted by his experiences is he ready to listen to an old Dervish who argues that we must care only about ourselves.  Give in to your fate!  Be a mouse on board the king’s ship!  This is a philosophy for the egotist and the middle aged man worn out by his youthful adventures. 

Is it middle-aged men who predominantly read this book?  Is this the secret of its long success….

If we are determined to acquire a message from this novel we need to find someone stronger and more heroic; someone who can combine the best qualities of both Candide and Pangloss; a person capable of fusing together practical living with abstract philosophy; we need, I guess, a sort of John Locke.  He wrote a treatise on practical education; as well as living an interesting and varied and adventurous life.  It is unlikely that Monsieur le Docteur Ralph knows much about it.  His head wedged in between the cabbages and asparagus.

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