Candide was required reading for me during High School. I can honestly say that of all the novels I was required to read, this was my least favorite. Now it is now over twenty years later. I was questioning whether I would see Voltaire differently now than I did then, so I have spent the last couple days listening to Candide and Zadig to find out. In a way, the activity was an act of curiosity. It was a challenge in another. I try to glean at least something from every book I read, even if I didn’t like it. Voltaire had also been referenced in several novels I’ve read over the past couple years, so it seemed apropos to revisit him.
I ought to like the guy. Voltaire was a prolific writer. He is known for many thousands of published works. He penned plays, poems, novels, essays, and even scientific papers. He was a notorious political figure that believed in the freedoms of religion and speech, and was a strong proponent for the separation of church and state. Voltaire was (and still is) renown for his satiric wit. He loathed intolerance and religious dogma while risking censorship from the French monarchy. This wasn’t an individual whom kept his opinions silent. In fact, his part in the Enlightenment movement is considered foundational to the French Revolution.
Voltaire was a forward-thinking author of great independence and will – what’s not to like?
This seems to be a case of the man vs. his art for me. From the little I know about Voltaire, I agree with him. I actually relish a good satire. There is something about Candide and Zadig though that left me cold. It did when I first read him and it still does now. My hypothesis? The culture of his day is so different from the culture of now that his novels have lost their relevance. That isn’t to say his message is out-dated — These topics are some of those which we as a species still debate upon today. I think that it is the way in which he wrote about these things that is failing the test of time.
In Candide, there are countless references to women being owned, traded, used and abused. True, that is still something humanity struggles with. The passive way in which Voltaire references it seems more aligned with those whom would support inequality than to point out a need for further change. There is no outrage. There is no taking offense. There is only near-mute acceptance of horrific treatments and victimization as though it were simply a matter of course. Too often even today, various forms of maltreatment against women is a matter of course. I beg to ask where the satire is? Candide reads to me as incredibly misogynistic, and I fail to see how that has anything to do with great wit.
This excessive theme of the denigration of women is so distracting that his curt warning against excessive optimism nearly passed my notice. The concept that there is negativity in the world, regardless of whether we believe it is “for a reason” or “in God’s plan” or perpetually “out to get us”… etc? That’s relevant. I am a person who likes the idea of attaining balance in life. I would argue that excessive optimism is as unhealthy as excessive pessimism. But do Voltaire’s characters learn from their horrible experiences? They don’t seem to. Instead, it is left to the reader to decide how ridiculous their outlooks are. To me, Candide implied that it is acceptable to never grow as a person or strive for wisdom. (How is that Enlightenment?)
It almost seems like Voltaire wrote with a cheekiness of purporting that his work is a satire while intending it to be otherwise. (That would be a great inside joke to smirk at, right?)
It could be argued that this irritation at ineptitude was Voltaire’s point. Few things get people I know stirred up more than having to deal with someone they consider to be “stupid”. Voltaire wants his reader to be smarter and more insightful than his characters. He wants the reader to see the shortcomings of logic that these fictitious persons make and absorb the bigger picture of their folly. Maybe by using these people as an example of what not to do in life, he invites people to make improved choices. I find this type of character to be intolerable though. I expect more. I’d rather share in the struggle of a protagonists’ downfall as they realize universal truths than to see them simply avoid growth.
Maybe that’s just me. I’m fully aware that there are plenty of people out there that still love to read him. From my own vantage point, I see his works as a creature of over two centuries ago. (And, as someone who revels in dusty old books clear back to Socrates and Virgil, I’ll venture that’s saying something.)