A few of my friends recently took me to a surprise dinner for my birthday. During the week leading up to the celebration, they suspected that I knew about the surprise, or that I would figure out. When I asked questions that they thought were close to me guessing, a female friend of mine would laugh, and my male friend just kept saying “no.” When I walked into the surprise dinner, I was, indeed, surprised, and my friends all laughed, proud of themselves for having kept their secret, and relieved that the difficult secret-keeping was over.
Though fairly simple, this anecdote from my friends relates to Freud’s and Spencer’s theories of laughter. Both thinkers create versions of Relief Theory that incorporate the “hydraulic” theory, which states that nervous energy builds up and needs to be released through muscular motion. In its broadest iteration, the theory holds no requirement as to whether the material that subscribes to it is innocent or malicious.
Yet in Voltaire’s work, we observe the darker applications of Relief Theory. Freud tells us that the “essence of humor” is that one “spares oneself the affects to which the situation would naturally give rise and overrides with a jest the possibility of such an emotional display” (Freud 112). We can readily apply this to Voltaire’s work, for he discusses, as aforementioned in recent blog post, extremely trying topics: rape, poverty, and misfortune among them. Yet instead of lamenting the implications of these topics, he uses techniques which attempt to spare readers the adverse effects, as prescribed by Freud.
But does Voltaire’s humor function as humor? Is he writing this satire, that is, to make us laugh, and then ask ourselves why we are laughing? Descartes also points out that laughter which accompanies indignation can come from, “the joy that we have in observing the fact that we cannot be hurt by the evil at which we are indignant,” and/or, “the fact that we find ourselves surprised by the novelty or by the unexpected encountering of this evil” (Descartes 23). If we subscribe to the first portion, then Voltaire proclaims his joy as a slap in the face of the leaders of government and religion.
One technique that Voltaire uses is one we have seen before in the course. He sometimes italicizes certain phrases as causes for the misfortunes that befall his characters, and thereby clues the reader in to the satire. He uses the italicized phrase “sufficient reason,” in order to justify the bayonet killing several thousands of people (Voltaire 5). Pangloss, a bit later, tells a sailor that he sins against “the universal reason” (Voltaire 11). Voltaire elevates these phrases as a demonstration of the self-heightened qualities of the authority and institutions.
Another technique Voltaire uses is the seemingly innocuous, but pseudo-pretentious storytelling. He says that, after the earthquake, the “sages” of Lisbon:
“could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fe [“act of faith”]; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking” (Voltaire 13).
He fills this sentence with sarcastic, maybe even sardonic, pretention, calling the leaders “sages,” the ritual of punishment “beautiful,” and justifies the action because it was chosen by the “University.” Yet we do not miss his point, for he clearly believes that the action is horrendous. It should be noted here that we may or may not laugh aloud upon reading this. I smiled when I read the sentence, and wrote, “clever!” in my margin. Perhaps, however, those readers encountering the line in the time when Voltaire wrote might laugh as a form of the aforementioned nervous release (Relief Theory). We would then see a depiction of the darker side, the laughing through the contempt of indignation—whether forced or natural—that Descartes explores. The headings of the chapters (or moments?) set up Voltaire’s storytelling technique skillfully, and add humor in that the content does not match the structure. Therefore, he instantly cues us in to the satirical nature of the piece.
Candide has been made a musical, and I performed Cunegonde’s song in a voice recital last spring. I bring this up to point out that Voltaire made his style so clear that the writers of the musical were able to put it into the music. “Glitter and be Gay,” Cunegonde’s song, has an operatic feel. In it, she discusses her misfortune very dramatically, only to switch into a light bouncy section of the piece. In the song, she sings unnecessarily high (up to a Db or E above high C, for the musical folk in the audience), and thus demonstrates a frivolity and pretention similar to the tone Voltaire uses. When I performed it, the audience laughed a lot. I suspect that, like the readers of Candied, they laughed with a little bit of contempt (for the character), a bit in response to incongruity (they may not have expected the obscenely high notes), and a bit at the structure of the song.