Candide: An Essay in Velocity

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Candide: An Essay in Velocity

Preface to an Italian edition of Voltaire’s Candide with illustrations by Paul Klee, 1974.

Wiry figures, animated by an eel-like mobility, flex and writhe in a dance of whiplash nimbleness: it was in such a way that in 1911 Paul Klee illustrated Voltaire’s Candide, giving visual (I would almost say “musical”) form to the joyous energy that—over and above the dense web of references to an age and culture—this book still communicates to the reader of our times.

In Candide today it is not the “philosophical tale” that most enchants us, or the satire, or the emergence of a moral or a vision of the world: it is the sheer pace of the thing. With lightness and rapidity a whole series of disasters, tortures, and massacres scampers across the page, bounds from chapter to chapter, is ramified and multiplied, without afflicting the reader’s emotions with any effect but that of an exhilarating and primordial vitality. If the three pages of chapter VIII suffice for Cunégonde to relate how, having had her father, mother, and brother hacked to pieces by the invaders, she was raped, disemboweled, cured, reduced to being a washerwoman, prostituted in Holland and Portugal, and shared on alternate days by two “protectors” of different faiths, and in this way chanced to witness the auto-da-fé of which Pangloss and Candide were the victims, and finally to meet up with the latter again, less than two pages in chapter IX are needed for Candide to find himself with two corpses on his hands and for Cunégonde to exclaim: “However did you do it, you who were born so gentle, to slaughter a Jew and a prelate in the space of two minutes?” And when the old servant has to explain why she only has one buttock, and starts to tell her life story from when, as the daughter of a pope, at the age of thirteen, in the space of three months, she experienced destitution and slavery, was raped nearly every day, saw her mother cut into four pieces, suffered war and hunger, and was dying in the plague in Algiers, all to get to the point of telling us about the siege of Azov and the unusual source of nourishment that the starving janissaries found in female buttocks—well, at that point things go on a bit longer: two whole chapters or (say) six pages and a half.

Voltaire’s great discovery as a humorist was destined to become one of the sure-fire effects of comic films—the high-speed accumulation of disasters. And there is no lack of sudden accelerations of pace that carry the sense of the absurd to the point of paroxysm, as when the series of disasters already told so swiftly “in full” is repeated in résumé at breakneck speed. What Voltaire projects with his lightning “shots” is a great world-embracing movie, Around the World in Eighty Pages, that carries Candide from his native Westphalia to Holland to Portugal to South America to France to England to Venice and finally to Turkey, while branching out into the supplementary world tours of the “co-stars,” both men and women, the latter easy prey to pirates and slave traders from Gibraltar to the Bosporus. Above all, it is a great movie on current events in the world, with the massacre of whole villages in the Seven Years’ War between France and Germany (the “Bulgars” and the “Avars”), the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the auto-da-fé of the Inquisition, the Jesuits in Paraguay who refused Spanish and Portuguese domination, the mythical riches of the Incas, with a few briefer flashes on Protestantism in Holland, the spread of syphilis, piracy in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, the civil wars in Morocco, and the exploitation of Negro slaves in Guyana, all the while leaving a certain margin open for the literary and social gossip of Paris and for interviews with the many dethroned monarchs of the time, who had all gathered for the Carnival in Venice.

A topsy-turvy world, in short, in which nobody comes off well anywhere, if we except the only wise and happy land, El Dorado. Any connection here between happiness and wealth should be put out of mind, given that the Incas do not know that the gold dust on their roads and the cobblestones of diamonds have such value for the men of the Old World. And yet, just think: Candide finds a wise and happy society right there among the gold fields. It is there that Pangloss might finally be right, and the best of all possible worlds might be a reality. The trouble is that El Dorado is hidden among the most inaccessible peaks of the Andes, perhaps located in a crack in the map. It is a no-place, a utopia.

But if Voltaire’s Bengodi has some of the vagueness and unconvincing quality that is proper to utopias, the remainder of the world, with all its painful vexations, even if these are mentioned very briefly, is by no means represented artificially. “This is what it costs for you to eat sugar in Europe!” says the Negro in Dutch Guyana, after telling us his sufferings in a few lines. And the courtesan in Venice: “Ah, monsieur, if you could imagine what it is like to have to caress, indiscriminately, an aged merchant, a lawyer, a monk, a gondolier, an abbot; to be exposed to every insult and affront; to be often reduced to borrowing a skirt just to go and have it taken off again by some repulsive fellow; to be robbed by one man of what one has earned from another; to be taxed by the officers of justice, and to have no prospects other than a horrendous old age, a hospital, a dungheap… .”

Certainly the characters in Candide seem to be made of rubber. Pangloss is rotting with syphilis, they hang him, they tie him to the oar of a galley, and we find him still alive and well; but it would be wrong to say that Voltaire skips over the price of suffering. What other novelist has the courage to show us his heroine, who at the beginning is “rosy-cheeked, fresh, plump, and appetizing,” transformed into a Cunégonde who is “faded, with gummy eyes and flattened breasts, and chapped, reddened arms”?

We are aware at this point that our reading of Candide, intended to be completely detached, completely “superficial,” has led us to the heart of the “philosophy,” of Voltaire’s vision of the world. This is perceived not only in Voltaire’s quarrel with Pangloss’s providential optimism. When we come down to it, the mentor who is the longest at Candide’s side is not the unfortunate Leibnizian pedant at all, but the “Manichean” Martin, who is inclined to see nothing in the world but the triumphs of the devil. And if Martin plays the role of the anti-Pangloss, one can by no means say that he has things all his own way. It is vain, says Voltaire, to seek a metaphysical explanation of evil, as do both Pangloss the optimist and Martin the pessimist, because this evil is totally subjective, indefinable, and incapable of measurement. Voltaire’s creed is antifinalist; or, rather, if his god does have an end and purpose, then it is an inscrutable purpose. A design for the universe does not exist; or if it exists, it is up to God to know it, not up to man. Voltaire’s “rationalism” is an ethical and voluntaristic attitude depicted against a theological background as incompatible with man as that of Pascal.

If this merry-go-round of catastrophes can be contemplated with something approaching a smile, it is because human life is a brief, limited thing. There is always someone who can claim to be more unlucky than we are, and if by any chance there were some person who had nothing to complain about and possessed every good thing that life had to offer, he would end up like Signor Pococurante, senator of Venice, who forever has a stench under his nose and finds fault where in all conscience he ought to find only reasons for satisfaction and admiration. The really and truly negative character in the book is this one, Pococurante the bored-to-tears. For in the last analysis Pangloss and Martin, although they give absurd answers to meaningless questions, are in fact struggling amid the sufferings and the risks that are the very stuff of life.

The subdued vein of “wisdom” that emerges in this book, through marginal spokesmen such as Jacques the Anabaptist, the Inca elder, and the Parisian savant who closely resembles the author, is stated at the end (and put into the mouth of the Dervish) in the famous moral “il faut cultiver notre jardin”: “we must tend our own garden.” A very restricted moral, certainly, and one that should be understood primarily in its anti-metaphysical, intellectual sense—you must not saddle yourself with problems other than the ones you can solve by your own direct, practical efforts—and then in its social sense, as the first affirmation of work as the substance of every value. To our ears today the exhortation to “tend our own garden” comes laden with selfish, bourgeois overtones, totally out of tune with our own anguish and concerns. It is no coincidence that this injunction appears on the last page, almost outside this book in which work appears only as damnation and gardens are regularly devastated. It is also utopian, no less than the kingdom of the Incas is: the voice of “reason” in Candide is utterly utopian. But neither is it pure chance that this phrase from Candide is the one that has become most famous, and indeed proverbial. We must not forget the radical ethical and epistemological change that this statement marked (we are in 1759, exactly thirty years before the storming of the Bastille). Man is no longer judged in his relations with transcendental good and evil, but by that little or much that he can in fact do. From this stem both an ethic of strictly “productive” work, in the capitalistic sense of the word, and an ethic of practical, responsible, and concrete commitment without which no common problems can be solved. The real choices of man today, in a word, start from this point.