Take My Hand and I’ll Lead Ya

Candide and Other Stories
Voltaire

I spend too much time on Twitter. That’s not an unusual statement and I suspect that like many other people who might find themselves nodding in agreement I’m not alone in being able to rationalize the time I do spend.

Here’s one such attempt: when there, I indulge in an ongoing discussion about books with a better read, more learned and, truthfully, more conservative crowd than I usually do

One recurring theme in those discussions is the primacy of art in writing. It’s a crowd in which aesthetics rule and among which the very idea that art serves a social purpose is anathema. Actually, the collective repugnant reaction transcends anathema if that’s possible.  The threat appears downright Soviet.

I’m not certain just where François-Marie Arouet stood on aesthetics, but I’m pretty sure he found the whole program of literature as a course of moral development downright silly.  At least that’s what I think after reading the ‘other stories’ collected in this volume.

Art or mind control, propaganda or motivation? It’s all arguable.

My education wasn’t all that different from what you’d find in most liberal arts programs. And since I wasn’t a lit major, let alone a French lit major, I encountered Voltaire, as I did many others, as a resident of the one-title pile.

That statement looks more ridiculous on the page than I intended, but I’m letting it stand because, for many, Voltaire boils down to the tale of Candide. If you know little of that work you may, nonetheless, know its most famous phrase, ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’  Or you may know the adjective derived from name of the character who repeatedly utters it.  Candide’s tutor, Professor Pangloss, is an unrestrained optimist. The story itself makes mincemeat of the utility of such a worldview.

Making mincemeat of widely held worldviews is all in a day’s work for our scribe. Even though I’ve seen the multivolume set of his philosophical writings and, decades ago, read his Letters from England, the pigeon hole I stuck him in was labeled satirist. Read the tales in this book and you’ll be forgiven for thinking that’s all he is.

You will also, I think, be highly entertained. The additional tales, in order of appearance, if not publication, are Micromégas, Zadig, The Ingenu and The White Bull, all ably translated by Roger Pearson. Dr. Pearson has an ear for the lyrical line, or at least knows when a snippet of lyric will move things along. It’s a trait I admire and it made me smile when, in The White Bull, Nebuchadnezzar says “Alas and alack.” Even Oxford dons can’t escape Ira Gershwin.

Sometimes propaganda begets art. Am I alone in sensing hints of Antonio Frasconi?

These tales all share much in common with the better-known title story.  Micromégas is set in outer space,  both Zadig and The White Bull are set in the ancient Near East. By comparison, The Ingenu is nearly contemporaneous with Voltaire, but sports a major character who is a member of the Huron tribe. The choice of such origins, time periods and locales is no puzzle. If you’re poking a stick at the power structure it pays to have a little distance. Plausible deniability doesn’t just benefit bureaucrats and businessmen.

Voltaire has a long list of people and things he’s skeptical of. These include, in no particular order, royalty, religion, Jansenists, Jesuits, moralists, monarchists and muddled thinking. For good measure, he seems to think better, if not well, of Huguenots and Englishmen. As lists go, you could do worse. You can also see how it’s a list built to undermine the idea that appropriate reading should be about ‘educating the heart and mind.’

Satire really needs to be taken as a whole to get the full effect. In form and manner, there’s much common ground between the five stories collected here. Zadig, for example, is a courtier, maybe even a court philosopher, in ancient Babylon who gains the favor of the king and, especially, queen. He seems naturally adept at almost anything he turns his hand to.

Quite often all he’s done is suss out the most practical approach to a problem. Almost every time he does so, those currently occupying the role he’s just overshadowed rise up to destroy him. It’s not spoiling anything to note that the hero of a tale alternately titled, ‘Or Destiny,’ doesn’t end up on the ash heap of history, although he comes close to doing so more than once. Along the way, all sorts of entrenched beliefs are skewered.

Of course, one man’s propaganda is another man’s commerce.
(c) Matthew Deffee, no infringement intended)

Or take the Ingenu. Until now I thought that word applied to comely lasses too naive for the world we live in. The latter part of that statement applies to our hero, a native of North America who arrives in Lower Brittany by way of England. He’s adopted, as it were, by a brother and sister who convince themselves the emigré is a lost relative. An almost Feydeau-like series of events transpire as the savage is ‘converted,’ in every sense of the word, to a proper Frenchman.

The success of that transformation depends on whom you ask. Our hero, unrepentant in the face of the institutionalized hypocrisies of French society, ends up in the Bastille. He’s freed by a selfless, but ultimately self-destructive, act of his true love, who might also be his first cousin. Yet the man winds up rewarded as a proper Frenchman would expect.

It helps that at times Voltaire can be laugh-out-loud funny, at least for me. Here’s a bit from The White Bull, a mad tale in which figures from the Old Testament comingle with figures of Egyptian history and myth. Our players are a familiar prophet and Pharaoh’s magician from the Book of Exodus:

“I must say,” said Daniel, I certainly didn’t eat half as well as this when I was in the lions’ den.”
“What, sir, they put you in the lions’ den?” said Mambres, “And how is it they didn’t eat you”
“You know perfectly well, sir,” said Daniel, “that lions don’t eat prophets.”

As my French friends say, “But, of course.”

Every time I finish reading a book I’ve ignored too long I feel rewarded and this time is no different.

Someday, I may even allow myself to enjoy that feeling.

 

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