Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Asking More of Voltaire Than He Can Provide?

If Voltaire's Candide is primarily a philosophical tract to discredit Gottfried Leibniz, Voltaire certainly succeeds. However, if we seek practical answers to the problem of evil, the sins of men, and extreme social inequality, Candide comes up short, raising more problems than solutions. Kasaipwalova, Grace, and King, with echoes of Candide, offer inspiring (if not perfect) solutions.
At the apex of the novel, Candide and Cacambo are free to remain in the peaceful and equal city of gold. However, Candide misses Cunegonde, and furthermore, Candide realizes that borrowing the “pebbles,” the “yellow clay” of El Dorado will make them “richer than all the kings in Europe” (46). Candide desires to live in an unequal society, and the King of El Dorado happily obliges their request for treasure-laden sheep. The reader may sympathize with Candide's innocence in the first half of the novel, but now Candide is undeniably wealthy and somewhat selfish in his motives. Now when Candide, who can throw around enormous sums of money to achieve his ends, is the victim of thieves such as the Venice-bound skipper and the seductive Marchioness, it's difficult to sympathize with our hero. But Candide isn't without heart. When he hires Martin for companionship, and when the denied companions complain of “injustice,” Candide throws money at them to keep them quiet (51). At the novel's end, Candide and Cocambo realize their desire to own their own kingdom—a human-created Eden. Voltaire succeeds in convincing both Candide and the reader that the world is far from perfect.

Perhaps Candide's response to inequality and suffering can then be summarized as charitable giving and isolation. Neither of these responses are satisfying under the standard of true justice. The mother in Thomas King's “Borders” refuses to deny her ethnic heritage, changing hearts and laws in the process. John Kasaipwalova gives us a David-and-Goliath story for the post-colonial era. I am struck, and torn, by the response of Patricia Grace's characters to losing their native lands. This story, like many of the destitute characters in Candide, reminds me of the classic moral scenario in which a hungry man is justified in stealing a loaf of bread. Many of the characters Candide encounters live in similar situations, and the philosophy of Leibniz (as well as the pennies thrown to them by Candide) don't resolve the injustice, but only dull the pain. While I don't know if I agree with the route taken by Grace's characters, they provide an example of positive action, rather than hiding from suffering. Voltaire suggests that suffering is caused by the sins of men (and there are plenty of those in Candide, especially in Paquette's sexual repression). But Candide, as well as these short tales, also raise questions of structural justice—including civil disobedience or finding loopholes in a law. Is suffering a result of structures or individuals, or both? The answer to that question—and the practical solutions to injustice—might not be found in the Garden of Eden.

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