It’s been at least two months since I’ve read Candide, and still it’s taken me forever to be able to blog about it. It’s one of those deceptively simple stories that you look at, and think, “Oh! Obviously I could read this in half a day.”
And you do read it in half a day. The kicker is trying to understand what on earth is going on.
Because Candide is a picaresque story, almost a bilsdungroman, about the thoroughly optimistic (nearly to a fault) Candide, who enjoys a life of love and princely repose, and believes in the philosophy of Optimism, or as Pangloss calls it, Leibnizian optimism. With the progression of the novel, however, Candide experiences a slow and painful disillusionment with this idea as he experiences weariness and hardship in the world. Which, in the end, doesn’t sound like too bad of an idea; most novels are either about a cynic finding hope, love, or happiness, or an optimist experiencing the reality of a cold and oftentimes cruel world. But this novel moves at such a fast pace, and some of the occurrences in it are so unbelievable that at times it’s hard to take the novel seriously. And yet it is very serious; toying with historical events, political beliefs, and intellectual ignorance.
Which is why it’s such a pain in the butt to read.
Obviously, the satirical nature of the whole thing; basically listing huge catastrophes and tragedies one after another in a laundry list of irony and cynicism concerning optimism and hope in the world to be better than how it actually is as nothing but stupidity. In fact, the only relief we have is in the magical golden city of El Dorado; in which people are actually peaceful and content; but even in finding this utopia, Candide leaves anyways to go find his love Cunegonde.
But anyways, it’s interesting to read this work, that so harshly ridicules the idea of philosophical optimism, that the “great” philosopher Pangloss is pictured as an idiot by the end of the story, and the whole philosophy is thrown over as a farce. Even the examples Pangloss uses are absolutely ridiculous; he notes, “It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles.”
Do I wear glasses because I have a face suited for them? No. I wear them because otherwise I would be an even worse driver than I already am, and I wouldn’t be able to read (a true tragedy). But especially in this cynical age, it’s easy to agree that sometimes, crappy things just happen, and that perhaps they weren’t for “the best” of anything, but that they just “happened.” Optimism functions like hope, propelling us forward until we die. But in this sense, optimism is acting as a shield of ignorance; a way of answering the age-long question of “why.” Because bad things happen every day, and most of them are unexplainable. So when we need answers, it’s really a coward’s way out at times to use a blanket statement such as “it was for the best”. Because no, sometimes it isn’t for the best. My glasses were run over by a car yesterday, and now I have to get new ones. Maybe it was for the best, because now I’m forced to update my eyeglass prescription, but otherwise, now I have the inconvenience of having to purchase a new pair when really, I could’ve used the money for other things.
And sometimes, do tragedies like the one that happened in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago just happen? No. Even if we don’t know the reasons, they exist.
And if you have to tell yourself that to feel better about the situation, then may Pangloss follow you wherever you go, to reconfirm that opinion.