Thursday, 30 October 2008

Getting The Ball Rolling

Kathy suggested I put up a version of how I introduced the text yesterday, so here you go. All very inchoate, but it's really just designed to raise a few points. Annoyingly, the Boston banning story is already here, but repetition is an essential component of pleasure (as my son demonstrates by repeatedly flinging cornflakes around the sitting room)

See if this sparks any thoughts.



[This is basically how I kicked off the group on Wednesday - it's expressly designed NOT to tell you what to think about the book, as that would seem to negate its entire purpose]

1. The book is a journey, from the quasi-eden of Westphalia [but look at the description of this 'paradise' is deeply ironised] to El Dorado and back through the Europe of the 1750s - I want to start by going on a similar, albeit intellectual, journey.

2. Let's start, for entirely sensible reasons, with St Augustine, and his description of the joys of the intellectual life in his Confessions (Book 4, ch.8 for all you completists out there):

Conloqui et conridere et vicissim benevole obsequi, simul leger libros dulciloquos, simul nugari et simul honestari.

or for the non-classicists among us:

Conversations and jokes together, mutual rendering of good services, the reading together of sweetly phrased books, the sharing of nonsense and mutual attentions.

- isn't this what 'Humanities Reads' (and university) is/is supposed to be all about? Not just talking about books, but the sense that discussing ideas/beliefs/theories actually has value ? That the life of the mind matters?

[apologies for my vaguely 19th-Century taste for italics]

- and in this, we differ from the vast majority of the Anglo-Saxon world, which has a [perhaps healthy? - discuss, writing on only one side of the answer paper] pretty strong disdain for the 'pointy-headed intellectual'; insert your own thoughts on general philistinism, and extra marks if you've already remembered Auden's

To the man-in-the-street, who, I'm sorry to say,

Is a keen observer of life,

The word 'Intellectual' suggests straight away

A man who's untrue to his wife.

- As Sterne says, 'They order [...] this matter better in France'

3. France is the country which has really maintained the idea of the intellectual as public figure, as someone whose opinions on contemporary reality are solicited and valued - this goes right back to the Enlightenment, and to people like Voltaire, whose short book (not a novel, btw; it's a conte, which is slightly different, but unless you're particularly exercised by the minutiae of prose genres, don't worry about it) Candide was, and continues to be, the intellectual equivalent of a hand grenade. The text has been banned repeatedly since its initial publication, and continues to suffer attacks from the religious right in the States. Little seems to have changed since 1929, when it was impounded by customs officials in Boston, on the grounds that:

For years we've been letting that book get by. There were so many different editions, all sizes and kinds, some illustrated and some plain, that we figured the book must be all right. Then one of us happened to read it. It's a filthy book ..."

'Filth', however, isn't really the reason why it stirs up so much opprobrium; the main reason is surely that it's one of the great works exemplifying the Enlightenment's antiestablishment, antiauthoritarian and freethinking beliefs.

4. This is a philosophical book about the dangers of philosophy, or rather, about the dangers of believing that any one belief system can possibly have all the answers. This is where PANGLOSS comes in, with his one-size-fits-all school of 'metaphysico-theologico-cosmo-nigology'. More than that, the book is also laying in to the doctrine of optimism [hence the subtitle], as expounded by Gottfried von LEIBNIZ.

- The book really slams Leibniz's ideas, and arguably presents him as little more than a philosophical Pollyanna - this is unfair (but isn't this always true of satire?); readers who want to see another side of the story, and in particular to learn something about his importance to the history of science, should turn to Neal Stephenson's brilliant Baroque Trilogy, and in particular the final volume, The System of The World, which dramatises the protracted intellectual battle between Leibniz and Isaac Newton over who really invented calculus. (I can sense I'm not selling this to you, but the novels are fantastic; if you want to read fiction that is funny, exciting and actually expects its readers to come equipped with a brain, read Stephenson. Intellectual history, pirates, and a duel fought with cannon. At the Tower of London. End of plug.)

5. Back to optimism - it's not so much the idea that 'everything is perfect', but that, if the universe is created by a just and loving God, then it stands to reason that such a creator can only create the best of all possible worlds for his creatures to live in. The world, in Leibniz's eyes, is ultimately rational; there is an order to creation, even if we fallen creatures cannot perceive it.

6. And this is where Voltaire goes for the jugular. In their journey round the globe, his characters are shown a vision of the world as cruel, bloody, and ultimately senseless. The innocent suffer, whether it be death, rape, disease and/or war, and there is no sign of a cosmic plan. Above all, how can a just and loving God allow the Lisbon earthquake to occur in 1755?

7. How do we make sense of it all? Can we? These are the key questions of the book, and lead to the enigma of the ending. What does it mean, to 'look after our garden'? A call for isolationism? (as with El Dorado?) A recognition of the limits of philosophy as a universal panacea? A call for total selfishness: if there's no God, are we free to do exactly as we wish? This last alternative strikes me as the most troubling; the freethinking of the Enlightenment gave us Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire, but it also gave us the nihilistic excesses of the darkest of all philosophers of human nature, the Marquis de Sade. From Westphalia, via the horrors of the Seven Years' War to the dungeons of the Chateau de Silling (location of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, filmed by Pasolini as Salo; now out on DVD, and appallingly uncomfortable viewing) may not be that long a trip.

8. This is what Candide brings up in my mind; your opinions will be very different. For a short text, it raises so many issues; it's a picaresque tale, a very dark Bild├╝ngsroman, a social critique - and, as well, a comedy. This is at times a very funny book, but it's a particular type of comedy, rejecting any sense of laughter as consolation. Some may find the humour far too cruel, a series of sneers at human idealism and hope, and there are possibly grounds for this - Voltaire may be humanist, but is he humane? Laughter in the dark? There's a lot of Voltaire in Beckett, but I find Beckett infinitely more tender towards his creations; this is probably due to an entirely reasonable taste for cricket-playing Anglo-Irish Nobel laureates. Anyway, over to you, folks; while it may not show us 'the best of all possible worlds', reading Candide gives you the chance to discover one of the best of all possible books.

1 comment:

Heidi said...

I wondered what our choice of Candide signalled as the first Humanities Reads text--but my suggestion that was because we were the 'best of all possible faculties' met with wry smiles at best!