Archive for the ‘Voltaire’ Category

In a novel of strange episodes—philosophers being dissected alive, young women making love to monkeys, six deposed kings sitting to dinner in Venice—perhaps the most unaccountable is the hero Candide’s visit to the mythical city of Eldorado, a land where gold is as common as clay and peace and universal brotherhood reign. According to our text, Eldorado was a “fabled but literal[1] land laying between the Orinoco and the Amazon” (Cuffe 139). It was the eighteenth-century’s answer to Utopia and was sought by the Spanish conquistadors for its legendary gold, from which it takes its name (Cuffe 139).

But why does Voltaire, who otherwise restricts his novel to real places, often to real historical events (the Lisbon earthquake of 1755), and whose characters, though exaggerated, are never magical or in any way supernatural, resort to this mythic city? After all, the novel is so relentlessly dark, so insistent on man’s misery, the awful forces of nature, the innate rapacity of humans (remember Martin’s comparisons of humans to hawks), the indifference of God, why include such a happy, peaceful, prosperous country?

One answer, of course, is that Eldorado provides yet another sphere for satire. For like the utopias of other writers such as Sir Thomas Moore (Utopia 1516), Jonathan Swift (the Land of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels 1726), or Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Herland 1915), Voltaire’s legendary city offers an opportunity to condemn by comparison our real world with an ideal one. Take, for example, the Eldoradean’s attitude toward their “pebbles” and “mud”—the diamonds and gold that litter their land. One of their old men contrasts their attitude toward these pretty, largely useless objects against “the European states, with their irrational lust for the pebbles and mud of our land, for whose sake they would kill every last one of us” (46). (In this sense, Voltaire takes a route complementary, but in the opposite direction, to Milton who tried to expose the irrationality of human lust for gold and rare gems by loading Hell with great quantities of the stuff.)

Likewise, the Eldoradean’s attitude toward religion may be contrasted with the European one. When Cacambo asks the old man “what was the religion of Eldorado?” the old man responds, “Can there be more than one religion?” and then points out that theirs is a unified religion of gratitude toward God and nothing else in which all men are priests and no formal institution whatsoever exists (47). Clearly Voltaire had in mind to shame his European readers for the sort of religious intolerance and institutional power struggles that had lead to phenomenon such as the Thirty Years War—a bloody religious battle in Europe which was “one of the most destructive conflicts in European history”[2] (Wikipedia, “Thirty Years War”). These are all typical maneuvers by utopian writers. The reasonableness of their utopian peoples throw into relief the irrationality of whatever real peoples the writer is taking aim at.

But utopian writers usually set their entire novels within their utopia (though it’s only ¼ of the novel in the case of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels), and their characters usually only leave such places reluctantly. Yet Eldorado is a relatively brief, if central, episode in Candide, and, in this case, the characters leave willingly. What’s going on here?

Well, let’s look at Candide’s reasons for leaving. There is, of course, Cunégonde, but, Candide also explains, “If we remain here, we shall be just like everyone else, but if we return to the old world with only a dozen sheep loaded with Eldoradean pebbles, we shall be richer than all the kings put together. . . .” (49). Candide has been landed in a perfect country where the maxim “all men are created equal,” which will ignite revolutionary fervor some forty years later in America, is already in practice. But he doesn’t want to be equal; he longs for superiority, even our simple, naïve, lovable Candide. His wise servant Cacambo concurs because “so pleasant is it to be on the move, to get ourselves noticed back home, and to boast of what we have seen in our travels” (49). Life is too simple for them in Eldorado. They don’t get the recognition or the sense of adventure they crave.

This all reveals something, perhaps, less about Europeans than about humans in general. We make our own discontent. Even when given everything one could want, we grow complacent, and our ambitions stir us to seek novelties, adventure, challenges, and, yes, some measure of superiority over others. Compare Candide’s decision, for example, with the speech of the old woman toward the end of the novel when she complains of their relatively peaceful life in Turkey that “simply sit[ting] here and do[ing] nothing” is, perhaps, worse than being raped by pirates, having one’s buttock cut off, being dissected or hung in auto-da-fé (91). It’s not just God or nature or rapacious men who make the world a hard place to live in, it’s our own proclivity toward discontent, our restlessness, our endless seeking after more.

When I think of Candide’s decision to leave Eldorado, I’m reminded—are you surprised?—of an episode from Star Trek. In “This Side of Paradise,” Captain Kirk rescues his men from a colony where everyone is healthy and happy.

Afterwards, the ship’s physician, Bones, remarks, “Well, that’s the second time man’s been thrown out of paradise.”

“No, no,” says Kirk. “This time we walked out on our own. Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through –struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.”

Okay, well maybe that’s all a little more Darwinian than Voltaire, and Voltaire probably didn’t share Kirk’s martial attraction to the beat of drums (as evidenced by the Bulgarian episodes). But the point is similar in the notion that humans are not happy simply to be happy. They require some challenge—or at least work. “Work,” a wise Turk tells Candide, “keeps at bay the three great evils: boredom, vice, and necessity” (92). And, indeed, this is the one piece of advice that Candide not only takes to heart but which seems to offer him true comfort, so that, at the end of the novel, when Pangloss is spouting off yet again about necessary chains of events, Candide can famously say to his old master, “That is all well said. . . but we must cultivate our garden” (94).

It reminds me of yet another writer, Thomas Carlyle, who in England some 150 years later (than Voltaire) would point out that “The only happiness a brave man ever troubled himself with asking much about was, happiness enough to get his work done. Not “I can’t eat!” but “I can’t work!” that was the burden of all wise complaining among men. It is, after all, the one unhappiness of a man. . . . (Chapter 4, Past and Present). Like Candide, the hero of another work by Carlyle, Diogenes Teufelsdrockh of Sartor Resartus, realizes that is only through work that he can achieve happiness, which reminds me of another Victorian writer, John Stuart Mill, who said in his autobiography that the moment you ask yourself if your happy, you cease to be so. And, of course, this is all not so far from Descartes who’s third maxim stated that he would adjust his expectations to his reality and who’s fourth maxim was the determination to apply himself to the best work possible.

All these great thinkers from Captain Kirk to Carlyle to Descartes share in the belief that humans, fallen or otherwise, are best served when they spend less time seeking to be happy and more time simply applying themselves to some rigorous task. I suppose that’s a version of the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic,” but Descartes was Catholic and Voltaire a deist, and who knows about Captain Kirk. . . . No, I think it’s more than  a protestant value system, it’s a vein of pragmatism that runs at least from the Enlightenment (though probably much farther, even from the Stoics of Athens) down to our own time expressed, among other places, through philosophy, fiction, and film. Pragmatism isn’t terribly exciting or mysterious or lofty, but it is, well, pragmatic, and, in the end, what more can you ask of a philosophy?


[1] I suppose Cuffe means that, geographically speaking, such land existed, even if it wasn’t called Eldorado.

[2] And that’s saying a lot. . . .