Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On Candide

I have just finished Voltaire's Candide, or Optimism and overall have a thorough sensation of being underwhelmed.  It starts very strong and continues so if memory serves until about half-way in (I read the first three-fifths or more months ago and dropped it for more productive endeavors) where it becomes listless and redundant.  The pessimism of the tale refreshing and intelligent, however, it becomes superfluous at a point and the author clearly does not know how to make us emotionally invested with its characters.  I realize this is supposed to be a satire of Leibnitz mostly (who thankfully is one of the most unspoken philosophers of all of Europe - that is of those who are remembered at-all) and has comedic qualities (which once again, worked more in the beginning and then only occasionally) but that does not excuse making the characters dull for the most-part and essentially empty vessels (except from Candide, Martin and perhaps Pangloss) that large amounts of suffering and torment are poured in.

There honestly isn't much to say. It's strange having a hundred page novel that feels could have a moderate editing job done to it.  Honestly, I can't think of a novel that in some ways is so similar yet in tone and in quality is so radically different than Les Miserables.  Both are about the immense suffering human beings can go through and both take place in approx. the same period.  Except while in Les Mis one cares deeply for the characters and finds actual character within them; Candide is simply a cheap outline for Voltaire to criticize his contemporaries (along with Christianity and Jews - yes, the book is filled with Anti-Semitism; and it's not that the book shows the faults in Judaism as Schopenhauer did, it is vicious towards Jewish people) mostly Rousseau and Leibniz - though I suppose he could scarcely be called a contemporary.

I doubt it was the intention of the author, but I find it interesting that his moral in the end seemed to be for the peasantry to work through their pain and not think of their troubles - in Candide's response to Pangloss continue to pontificate how this is the best of all possible worlds, and Candide's reply is basically:  Sure, sure, now shut up and get back to work.  I think though the moral is supposed to be something more standard such as "cultivate your garden; in a mad world work on yourself and those around you for something virtuous and dignified" but that message just didn't strike me in the end.  On the very-last pg they become better people through their toil (though weren't they working on their farm already?  So if anything I suppose this reflects simply a change of mind they all develop?) which has a type of "whistle while you work" message I find loaded with BS. 

You could argue that there's potentially a source of Cynic-stoic wisdom of working on yourself rather than valuing wealth, fame or what European society conventionally values.  Ah, okay, I'll buy a bit of that.  But to me, this type of exemplifying manual labor and drudgery seems alarmingly close to the Primitivism that Voltaire mocks in Rousseau.  Also it seems really easy for Voltaire who was to my knowledge in the lower-end of the Upper Class to talk about the dignity and therapy of back-breaking soul-killing labor when he himself never had to do any.

But then I remember this, I suppose, is supposed to clearly show the awfulness of the type of "everything happens for a reason" mentality or belief that Voltaire is mocking in Leibniz.  But really, to have a hundred pg work make repetitively the same cycle of shit happen just for that final nail in the coffin (which has already been nailed more effectively a dozen times before) is obnoxious, tedious, and pointless.

I also hated that I knew whenever a character "died" I could expect them back.  I think it was around the second or third character returning I told myself, "so we'll see all these guys return by the end?  Yeah, probably."  And like the thirdseason of American Horror Story that ruins the entire thing because I know the characters are worse than disposable.  They're incapable of being legitimately disposed; and therefore incapable of being valued through the prospect of missing them.  Not that there's much to miss in many of them. 

I do however remember liking how Voltaire wrote Candide's loss of innocence in the beginning, but it all became one thing after another and though I read Candide lamenting every fucking time "is this really the best of all worlds!" I felt like he already lost his innocence and it seemed poor writing to have him in a rote fashion act as if he had it again.  I understand.  He's supposed to be the eternal optimism and hope of the human race.  Always thinking things might get better.  But there's having a character with that demeanor who knows what life is (as Candide does at a certain point) and Stoically braves the storm, and a innocent character who is optimistic because they're sheltered and don't know the horrors of the world or the suffering of life.  I feel Voltaire could've made an interesting character in Can, but overall am left knowing he didn't do anything interesting with him.

Overall, I'd say the book should just be one short (that is shorter) story or make each section of chapters a short story and elaborate on them in greater detail - and take a lot out while you're putting more detail into each episode.  I thought the pacing was great in the beginning, but then felt it was either too rushed or usually became repetitive and full of details I found unnecessary.  Though it wasn't maddingly awful, as I suspect Crime and Punishment or another bleak 400+ pg novel would be (I haven't finished a thing by Dostoevsky nor Tolstoy and asides from the latter's essays am unlikely ever to plan to) I did find it tedius and frankly going nowhere. 

This was meant to be just a quick summation of my feelings but I went half-way analytical into it.  Didn't feel like a complete waste of time but don't feel like I emotionally or intellectually profited from reading like I did Les Mis, nor did I enjoy the second-half much, so I can't even say it was a likable read; which at-least I can for Fear and Loathing and The Stranger.  Didn't like it, didn't hate it, but left with an overwhelming "eh" of being thoroughly underwhelmed and undersatisfied.  Asides from the ending I found nothing to hate, but very-little to love; so honestly, I'm surprised I found as much as I did to talk about.  It doesn't even work very-well as a historical piece, at-least not for me.  Because if I'm not invested in the people or narration at-all, how can I feel attached or experiencing a different Era of humanity?  The only thing I experienced from this era is the immense suffering of it, and even then, similar to The Jungle, I didn't feel like I experienced people suffering, but simply cogs created by the author to suffer and be nothing more than fodder to suffer.  People obviously suffer in Les Mis and 1984, but it's complex human beings suffering, and that makes all the difference.

If I'm going to try literature again, I really should re-try Utopia by Moore because I did like it but never wrote on it.  But I probably would try the Hunchback first because I want to see how much I'd like other works by Hugo, and I never did finish Gulliver's Travels. 

Also, I liked the character Martin, and am wondering if Marvin from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is based off him.  I wouldn't disbelieve it.

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