This article is part of an ongoing series titled “Books that Changed My Life.” Autobiographical reviews of books that changed our lives for the better and sometimes for the worse.
It is incredibly striking — at once both humbling and troubling — when someone who possesses great talent or skill, acknowledges not only the limits of their own ability, but of their craft in its entirety.
Imagine Lebron James, after finally winning his first championship ring, shrugging his shoulders and saying “I mean really, it’s just a game.”
Or perhaps Neil DeGrasse Tyson ending an episode of Cosmos with “There are some things science will never be able to explain.”
Such statements have much less force coming from a fan whose team has just lost, or from a Comparative Lit major who was never good at science anyway. But such admissions are rare.
I read Candide by Voltaire twice: once in English when I was a high school student taking a class at a nearby college, and once again in French, this year. The only literary device I still remember learning about when I first read Candide for that class was “willful suspension of disbelief.” The utterly fantastic — in the original sense of the word — and absurd events which befall Candide and the characters in the book are so implausible that one can only continue reading after willingly suspending any assumptions about the representation of physical realities.
It wasn’t until I recently read the original that I realised that Candide was alternatively titled ‘L’Optimisme” and in a sense, it seems Voltaire is suggesting that optimism itself is a willful suspension of disbelief.
As the titular character defines it, optimism is the zeal for maintaining that all is well when it is in fact not.
I’ve long favoured Voltaire’s critical skepticism — embodied in Martin, Candide’s savant Manichean companion who was chosen because he was the most unfortunate soul in Suriname — to the Leibnizian optimism embodied in Pangloss, Candide’s metaphysical theological cosmolonigology teacher.
I doubt that my somewhat cynical disposition came from reading Voltaire. That probably had more to do with growing up as part of a generation disillusioned by the unrealised hype of the ‘End of History,’ trickle-down economics, and Hope and Change. I also spent some very formative moments of my life in Britain and Russia, where public displays of excessive optimism are generally considered poor taste.
I admit that sometimes I myself am slightly suspicious of anyone who comes across as too optimistic. Are they willfully ignorant? Do they have something to hide?
This seems to be Martin’s attitude; every time Candide encounters someone who appears content with their life, Martin urges Candide to ask the seemingly content a few questions and, without fail, it turns out that the interlocutor has suffered all manner of calamity.
I learned a saying when I was in Russia: A pessimist is someone who thinks things can’t get any worse. An optimist thinks they can. So in that sense, I guess I’m an optimist.
But if cynicism is indeed the spirit of our age, as some frantically warn, Candide may be an instructive read:
The seemingly interminable debate between the stoic pessimism of Martin and the uncompromising optimism of Pangloss carries on throughout much of the book. Near the end, Martin asserts that human beings are born either for the convulsions of inquietude or else the lethargy of boredom.
The book seems on the verge of ending with Pangloss being vindicated — the protagonists of the story learning to find satisfaction in the simplicity of their tasks at the end of the causal chain of unfortunate events they’ve endured. But the final sentence all but renders null all their theorising, and perhaps is indeed a self-critical reflection by Voltaire on the import of his own philosophy.
The ending is anti-climatic, perhaps, but it only makes sense. The debate could go on forever, but ultimately, it has to wait; there is real work to be done.
In this sense, Candide is perhaps also the perfect read for an existentially angsty bourgeoisie (in which I include myself); the more we know, the more we wish we didn’t know. It’s all a bit overwhelming, which is why I find comforting retreat in my garden.
Cela est bien dit, répondit Candide, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.