Many times this semester we have raised the question as to whether or not it is an acceptable or damaging form of humor to laugh at others’ misfortunes. A tangible example of this is a form of slapstick comedy or humor in which we laugh at someone else’s pain. The classic example of such a type of humor is when we see a friend slip and fall. Many times, our first inclination is to laugh at our friend’s blunder before asking whether he or she is okay. I do not believe we laugh maliciously but rather we laugh because it was unexpected. Another example of a form of slapstick is comedy routines like The Three Stooges. The audience derives pleasure from the antics of the three brothers in which various unfortunate happenstances arise and the brothers are either hurt or inflict damage on one another. Undoubtedly, pain is not an enjoyable experience; but for some reason we find humor in it when viewing it from the outside. There is some innate human characteristic that derives pleasure from the misfortune of others. However, it is very important to note that in both of these examples of slapstick humor, the amount of damage inflicted is marginal and the “victim” of the joke is not seriously injured. This type of physical misfortune as humor is extremely applicable to the current work, Candide.
The amount of physical distress Voltaire places on Candide and the characters around him is practically unbearable. Very rarely will readers encounter a book in which the main characters are abused and berated on virtually every single page. However, despite the dark content of the book, Voltaire somehow manages to construct the narrative with a light tone. The tone and the matter-of-fact voice of the narrator trivializes Candide’s misfortunes in the very same way that Candide misinterprets them himself. It’s an ‘ignorance is bliss’ situation in which Candide is tortured throughout life but pushes on solely because of Pangloss’ notion that everything in this world is for the best. Candide is endlessly the butt of cruel jokes and one in particular that stands out is the running of the gauntlet. After forcibly being conscripted into the Bulgarian army, Candide mistakenly believes, “that it was a privilege of the human as well of the animal species to make use of their legs as they pleased.” (Voltaire 4). Four soldiers then arrest Candide and accuse him of desertion forcing him to choose between running the gauntlet or execution. He chooses to run the gauntlet and is essentially flayed after running it just twice. He asks to be executed but is spared by the King. There is essentially no humor in this scene but the connection is that Candide is made into an object of amusement for the soldiers in the same way that many jokes target individuals unfairly.
Many theorists we’ve studied thus far have attempted to answer the question as to why we laugh, particularly at others’ misfortunes, and many of these theories have been centered on the idea of raising ourselves above the people being laughed at. However, Descartes, Freud, and Spencer offer a different set of theories known as the relief theories. Descartes’ theory is perhaps the most relevant to Voltaire. Descartes believes it the responsibility of the author not to laugh at his own jokes, so that the audience may be more surprised and therefore learn more from the joke. (Descartes 25). Voltaire’s tone of voice lends to the absurdity of Candide’s misfortunes. In the same way that we are shocked by a friend slipping and falling, we are shocked by Candide’s bleak existence and the way in which he seems unaware of how poor off he truly is. In both situations, the absurdity lends to the humor. Spencer offers the next relief theory of humor and his claim is that laughter is a biological reaction. He believes that laughter is nervous energy that builds up within our bodies as we experience things. This energy is then directed through various channels such as mental ones as forming new thoughts, or physical symptoms such as laughter. However, a different kind of laughter occurs a unique way. He says the laughter of incongruity (i.e. absurdity) occurs when energy prepares to flow through designated channels then is suddenly directed into a new channel arising from an absurd situation. (Herbert 107). Like Kierkegaard, Herbert sees that laughter arises out of expectations that fail to be met. In the case of Voltaire then, we laugh as a biological reaction to the incomprehensible way in which Candide continually adheres to Pangloss’ ill-advised worldview. The final theory presented by Freud, is similarly a relief theory in which he believes humor is a release of worry or fear of the world. He believes that humor is the result of the super-ego watching out for the ego in a paternal way. (Freud 116). If Freud is correct, perhaps we laugh at Candide because the literary world presented to characters is absurd or we are thankful that ours is not like it.
Candide is clearly a type of satire that is quite difficult to digest. Humor in the story is almost impossible to find and it begs the question as to whether or not some of the issues that Voltaire deals with can ever be made humorous.