Candide (or Optimism), Voltaire, 1759
I remember when I first read Candide, in my 20s, I laughed so hard I had to hold my splitting sides, embarrassed by my lack of sophistication. I had discovered satire. On my second reading, now a much more mature 72, I just let the belly laughs out, unembarrassed. Being grown up has its privileges and Candide had not become any less brutally hilarious.
Today we take satire for granted. Every late-night comedian has satire down pat. They can make us laugh about the ridiculous antics of our leaders, entertainers, and all those “role models” we probably should not be emulating. But they all owe a debt to Voltaire. He was one of the first satirists in literature to make us laugh at the follies, stupidities, and vices of Humankind.
At more than 250 years old, Candide is as relevant today as it has ever been. Why? Because the human condition hasn’t changed at all since Voltaire had such a great time making fun of it.
In the beginning of this story, a young man, Candide, is living an idyllic life in the castle of The Baron, with all his worldly needs taken care of, in love with the beautiful Cunégonde, The Baron’s daughter, and tutored by the greatest teacher in the world, Dr. Pangloss, whose philosophy, which Candide adopted without question was that “everything in the world is for the best”, and that this was “the best of all possible worlds.”
Well, not so fast. Candide steals a kiss from the willing Cunégonde, The Baron finds out, kicks him out of the castle into abject poverty, and the rest of the story goes on to prove that Dr. Pangloss, with his philosophy that “everything in the world is for the best”, was a complete idiot.
Candide begins an odyssey that takes him to Spain, the Caribbean, Paraguay, Surinam, England, France, Venice, and Constantinople. He walks through all the special events of his day. Like the title character in Woody Allen’s Zelig, or Forest Gump, he seems to always be right where the important events of his day are happening.
His odyssey includes losing his beloved Cunégonde, being conscripted into the army to fight the Bulgarians, being tortured by the inquisition, traveling to the New World, being shipwrecked, finding Cunégonde, losing her again, trekking through South America and finding El Dorado, becoming extremely rich, witnessing the Lisbon earthquake, losing all his wealth, and finally finding Cunégonde again, now a not so beautiful Cunégonde after going through her own long odyssey.
Through all this he hilariously tries to uphold the philosophy of Dr. Pangloss. Although the worse continues to befall him wherever he goes, he still attempts to hold out that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” Until he doesn’t anymore. He finally asks the most important question of the book, “If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?”
Candide and his cast of characters finally come to a stop. Candide realizes that this life can be pretty terrible and approaching our problems with unalloyed optimism like a “Pollyanna” will not make it the “best of all possible worlds.” The only thing we can do is just return to the basics. He, his no longer beautiful Cunégonde, and the rest of his entourage finally find a life where they can be happy. Like hippies in their 1960s communes, they all settle down on a small farm “to cultivate one’s garden”.
If you like the satire of late night comedians, then Voltaire will, like he still does to me, have your sides splitting.