Voltaire, Candide (1759): introduction
and pages 1-17
How should we read a book like this?
What can it teach us about voyaging, and self-discovery?
What did I do first?
- I’m an “old book person,” so I looked
it up in OLLI to see if we might have an old (1759??) edition in Special
Collections and WorldCat. The 1759 edition is very, very rare—four copies
exist in WorldCat—UCLA, U. Chicago, Lehigh, and Princeton. Between the
authorities' campaign to destroy them and readers' "reading them to death,"
few of the original 20,000 survived, and that is truly a huge press run for
a newly written book in C18. (C15-16 press runs tended to be from 250
to the low thousands.) Interesting Goucher copies:
Voltaire, Candide, illustrated by
Rockwell Kent, New York : Random House, 1929 Special Collections/Archives
846.4 V93Jca 1929 LIB USE ONLY Descript 5 p.l., 9-111 
p., 3 l. : ill. ; 27.2 cm. Note Zigrosser, Rockwellkentiana, p. 61. Second
edition. Bound in purple cloth; stamped in gold. [RK (1882-1971) was a famous
American painter, book illustrator, and proponent of radical causes, and the
first edition of this book (1928) was the first book published by Random House,
a major C20 American publishing firm.]
Voltaire, Candide, or, Optimism.
Translated from the French by Richard Aldington, with an introduction by Paul
Morand and twenty illustrations in colour by Sylvain Sauvage London, The
Nonesuch press  Special Collections/Archives PQ2082.C3 E5 1939
LIB USE ONLY Descript xix, , 147,  p. : incl. col. front., col. illus.,
col. plates, ; 26 cm [RA (1892-1962) was an English Imagist poet who
served over 2 years in France during World War I and wrote a famous novel,
Death of a Hero (1929—826.6, A36Jol), satirizing English society as the
cause of the massive destruction of human life in that war.]
- I’m a language person and it bothers me
when foreign language quotations are not translated, so I looked up (Google)
"Deo erexit Voltaire,” the inscription V had carved into the chapel at
Ferney (see p. xlv for V’s little joke about “erexit”). It means
“Erected to God by Voltaire,” but that led me to excerpts from Ian Buruma’s
essay about his visit to Ferney, where he observes that the inscription
actually reads “Deo erexit VOLTAIRE,” which Buruma says “makes it quite
clear which of the two Voltaire thought was more important.” Photo of
- Then (finally—I’m a little ADHD), I
read pp. 1-17 and asked myself questions like:
- Why fake the source as a translation
from a German doctor “Ralph” (not a German name) who supposedly died in a
battle in which British troops defeated the French?
- The narrator’s voice is so ironic that
I can’t tell how much of this is meant to be read completely backwards and
how much is just slightly over- or under-stated. See pp. 1-2 descriptions.
- It’s easy to say Pangloss’s “reasoning”
is faulty (STUPID), but why is Pangloss’s reasoning faulty? E.g., “noses
were made to bear spectacles, and so we have spectacles. Legs are evidently
devised to be clad in breeches, and breeches we have.” Etc. Where can we
hear this same reasoning today? Is it still faulty (STUPID)?
- V uses “sufficient reason,” “cause,”
and “effect” as euphemisms for sex (3) but European readers knew that when
used together they came from the philosophy of Gottfried Leibnitz
(1646-1716) and were the root of a terrible debate about fate and free-will
between L’s followers and the disciples of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). What
was the debate about and what are the consequences for following either
side? See Catherine Wilson below. Is philosophy funny? Or is sex really
about the problem of “doing and forbearing” against our natural drives?
- Candide’s “military service” mocks the
Seven Years War (1756-63), and (as Pearson’s note observe) “all European
Wars before or indeed since” (313). Fought in Europe, North America, and
India, this seems to have been the first of the “World Wars” among the
European colonialist powers. France, Austria, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and
Spain were allied against Great Britain, Prussia, and Hanover, and both
sides’ colonial state forces fought as well. In the American colonies, it
was called the “French and Indian War.” When C sees the Abar village “burnt
to the ground in accordance with international law” (6), it’s hard not to
remember the televised scenes from the Middle East this summer. Have we
learned anything since the C18, or is humanity uneducable? Or are war and
rape (6-7, 9) and syphilis (10) and “twenty-four pounders” (cannon, 11) and
earthquakes (12) strictly “necessary” for the good of the universe?
- “If this is the best of all possible
worlds, then what must the others be like?” (16). Take the question
seriously. What are the alternate ways in which our world could be
configured? This is a question many kinds of thinkers have to confront, from
science fiction writers like Sterling, to biologists who study the Bay (it
wasn’t always like this), to political scientists and historians. What is
this world capable of becoming?
Bibliography [also see
sources cited in-text above]
Buruma, Ian. “Voltaire’s Coconuts” [excerpts of chapter 2],
Voltaire’s Coconuts (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1999), pp. 20-22 and
45-46. The Voltaire Society of America Available online at:
http://humanities.uchicago.edu/homes/VSA/Buruma.html (Viewed 8/31/06.)
Wilson, Catherine. “Freedom and the Principle of Sufficient
Reason.” (Section 8 of “Kant and Leibnitz”) Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy. Available online at:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-leibniz/ (Viewed 8/31/06).