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Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: Voltaire's Candide

I picked this up from one of our bookshelves, it's been sitting around the house for a while and Boy said he liked it. It was also short which is certainly a point in it's favor. I found it surprisingly entertaining. I was also surprised to have one of my coworkers claim it to be their favorite book when he spotted me reading it. While I wouldn't claim it to be a favorite, it is a good book and brings up a lot of things to think about. I found myself fortunate to have copy with explanatory notes as many of the references are few centuries out of date.
My copy also came with discussion questions in the back. I have selected a few that interested me.
1. How, exactly, does Voltaire make this list of horrors add up to comedy? What kind of laughter does this comedy produce? What are the good or bad things about being able to laugh at horror?
- I think that the source of the comedy is the manner in which the characters present their tragedies, over and over again, the characters challenge each other to either come up with a more tragic story to to determine which among them has the most tragic story, almost like they are proud or pleased with the excess of the tragedy for in this tale it gives them a kind of bragging rights. This produces an odd effect after one list of tragic events another character will state something to the effect "that is not so bad listen to this it is worse" which lessens the tragic elements of the story to mere contest and makes them humorous. Another element of the writing that causes the humor is that Voltaire does not make any of the characters very sympathetic, they are not fully developed, and they are so satirical that we cannot relate to them and empathize with them effectively and so the horrors seem to be less for we are not attached to the characters the events are happening to. The laughter is not quite cathartic, but it is ironic almost slapstick humor and one thing after another befalls Candide and his company. Being able to laugh at horror is at once both bad and good because it desensitizes us to it. This makes us better able to cope with it and recover from it but it may also make us less empathetic towards those dealing with their own horrors. But it is also simply a part of growing up. Anyone who has dealt with toddler knows that what constitutes horror for that age group is amazing minor, anything from vegetables to falling down could be considered a great tragedy, but as we grow up we have to deal with greater and greater tragedies and we show our strength when we can recover from them and learn from them without falling into despair. As grownups we have bigger problems to deal with, death, poverty, hunger, unemployment, car accidents, late fees, bad grades. Learning to laugh at past and even current tragedies helps us to see them for what they really are: events that in the moment may seem insurmountable but that we will overcome and later find still greater tragedies that are still insignificant in the big picture of our lives, of world events, etc. Few of our tragedies truly turn out to shape our lives or the world around us in the long run and laughter helps us move towards that long run.

2. In response to his experiences, Candide recommends that we "tend our gardens." What do you think he means by this? Is it a metaphor or a literal recommendation? Is it a road to happiness, or something else? What is your version of "tending your garden"?

- I think this instruction is literal, "go back to work" in all of Candide's philosophical rambling, none of it seems to have brought him any happiness, except simply the process of debating among friends. I think Voltaire is telling the reader to not put such blind faith in any particular philosophy. Instead, he urges us to do something productive and that productivity will make us happy. Literally gardening has been shown to be good for you both mentally and physically and it would be a productivity to throw yourself into. It would also keep you at home out of all the trouble Candide got himself into with traveling. But really, I think this ending was meant to mean something different to each reader, everyone will discover for themselves what the advice is and it will work for them because it will be adapted slightly to be a combination of what they got from the story and what would make them happy. My version of "tending your garden" is definitely taking care of my family and home and I believe over time this will yield rich rewards in happiness and personal relationships.

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