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Thursday, October 16, 2014

“We Must Cultivate Our Garden”


The latest self-assigned reading project for our intrepid Ulysses group was a double-header: Candide and Zadig, by François-Marie Arouet, known to the world as Voltaire. Comparing notes when we met to discuss Voltaire, we learned that all of us had read Candide first. It is, after all, Voltaire’s most famous work, and in the Signet Classic paperback edition we read (translated by Daniel M. Frame, with introduction by John Iverson and afterword by Thaisa Frank), Candide gets top billing on the cover and is the first work in the book, Zadig and Selected Stories trailing after.

Voltaire was no stodgy writer. When one member of our group observed, a trifle disparagingly, “He’s no Proust,” another agreed enthusiastically and gratefully. (Only five of the nine of us will meet in November to discuss Swann’s Way, the others begging off.) Voltaire’s outlandish adventure tales move right along, calamities and reversals of fortune piling up so fast it makes a reader’s head spin. This is not ‘realism,’ magic or otherwise, but sharp satire.

So, like the others in the group, I read Candide first, and when I reached the last page and the final words, I was overcome with deep satisfaction. Candide’s teacher, Pangloss, having learned nothing from all his experiences, is still holding forth with his metaphysics of optimism:
“All events are linked together in the best of all possible worlds; for after all, if you had not been expelled from a fine castle with great kicks in the backside for love of Mademoiselle Cunégonde, if you had not been subjected to the Inquisition, if you had not traveled about America on foot, if you had not given the Baron a great blow with your sword, if you had not lost all your sheep from the good country of Eldorado, you would not be here eating candied citrons and pistachios.”  
“That is very well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our garden.”
I loved that, and the morning I finished Candide, I posted a line or two on Facebook about how satisfying I found the protagonist’s final words. One of my friends objected. He felt the end of the book counseled withdrawal from the world and a retreat from action. (What is the word I’m forgetting here? The entire Fb exchange appears to have vanished into thin air, including the message I sent my friend.) I hadn’t read it that way at all! Metaphorical, yes, but meaning -- ???

Set that aside for a moment. I'll come back to it.

Turning to Zadig felt like coming down a few steps on the literary-historical ladder. The character Zadig was nearly perfect in the beginning – not only handsome and rich but also wise, generous, etc., etc., etc. – and rewarded in the end. He had a hero’s challenges (ho-hum) but not much to learn. Well, he did have a little something to learn, not in how to behave or how to live or how to counsel others but how to view the world. The most intriguing and bothersome passage to me in all of Zadig was his conversation with the hermit who transformed into an angel, come to enlighten him.

Immediately before the following exchange, the old hermit threw a widow’s nephew into the river, where he drowned. When Zadig protested, the hermit said that the young man “whose neck Providence has wrung would have murdered his aunt in a year and you in two.” The hermit then sprouts wings, Zadig falls reverentially to the ground, and the following conversation takes place.
“Men,” said the angel Jesrad, “pass judgment on everything without knowing anything; of all men you were the one who most deserved to be enlightened.” 
Zadig asked his permission to speak. “I mistrust myself,” he said, “but may I venture to ask you to clear up one doubt for me? Would it not have been better to have corrected that child and made him virtuous than to drown him?”  
Jesrad replied, “If he had been virtuous and if he had lived, his destiny was to be assassinated himself, together with the wife he was to marry and the child that was to be born to them.”  
“But,” said Zadig, “what? Then it is necessary that there be crimes and misfortunes? And the misfortunes fall on the good!”  
“The wicked,” replied Jesrad, “are always unhappy. They serve to test a small number of just men scattered over the earth, and there is no evil out of which some good is not born.”  
“But,” said Zadig, “what if there were nothing but good, and no evil?” 
“Then,” replied Jesrad, “this earth would be another earth, the chain of events would be another order of wisdom; and that other order, which would be perfect, can exist only in the eternal abode of the Supreme Being, whom evil cannot approach. He has created millions of worlds, not one of which can resemble another. This immense variety is an attribute of his immense power. There are not two leaves of a tree on earth, or two globes in the infinite fields of the heavens, that are alike; and everything you see on the little atom on which you were born had to be, in its appointed place and time, according to the immutable orders of him who embraces all. Men think that this child who has just perished fell into the water by chance, that it was by a similar chance that that house burned down; but there is no chance; all is test, or punishment, or reward, or foreseeing."
Is the angel Jesrad a precursor of Pangloss? All that is, must be? But Pangloss, for all his contorted reasoning, did not go so far as to see reward and punishment in necessity! Pangloss told Candide, “...private misfortunes make up the general good, so that the more private misfortunes there are, the more all is well.” It is not that those visited by misfortune have been punished. Besides, pointed out a sharp-eyed group member, the angel goes on to say that Zadig has been sent to change the fisherman’s destiny! Change it? Change destiny? Is it destiny, or isn’t it?

John Iverson writes that Voltaire was troubled by the philosophical system of Leibniz, “who reasoned that if God was perfect then He must have created a perfect world.” My French edition of Candide has an introduction (in English) by Julian Eugene White, who claims that Voltaire was better acquainted with Alexander Pope’s “perversion” of the Liebnizian philosophy reconciling the existence of evil with God’s perfect goodness. The general view, at any rate, still assumed everything in nature to have a purpose, or what Aristotle called a “final cause.” This is not ‘cause’ as we understand it today, coming before the effect and bringing it about, but one serving as a goal, a reason “in order to” rather than a reason “because of,” if you will.

At this point, one group member took off after Aristotle, blaming him for centuries of convoluted rationalizations on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, but I’m not going to take up that fight. Instead I’ve looked up birth and death dates for Voltaire, the three giants of European rationalism, and the triumvirate of European empiricists.

Rene Descartes, 1596-1650
Baruch Spinoza, 1632-77
John Locke, 1632-1704
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 1646-1716
Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, 1694-1778
David Hume, 1711-1835
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-78

Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz are the rationalists, and to understand the world, they simply reasoned about it. No telescopes or microscopes needed – an armchair would do. Descartes, by means of a famous thought experiment, demonstrated to his own satisfaction that he could always trust his own God-given mind to lead him to the truth. Cartesian confidence was clearly at work in the reasonings of Voltaire’s Doctor Pangloss.

But John Locke, the first of the empiricists, was born ahead of Voltaire, and David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were of Voltaire’s generation. Voltaire, then, is on the cusp. The authority of the rationalists is waning, and scientific experiment and the authority of experience are coming to the fore. Candide, malgré lui, is an empiricist: although his only goal was to be reunited with his beloved Cunégonde, he learns from his travels and his experiences. Interestingly, one of the things he learns is to judge and think for himself, which was a very Cartesian proposition, but let’s not think too much about that....

Here’s something I found myself wondering: How optimistic, really, was the philosophy of Doctor Pangloss or Alexander Pope or Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz? It was not, surely, the optimism of a happy modern individual, sure that things will always go right in his or her life. The optimism, if one wants to continue calling it that, was instead a faith that the clockwork of the world was running on some rational basis. Thus, early in the story, when Pangloss reappears exhibiting all the ravages of venereal disease, he reasons that his personal sufferings are all necessary to go into making up the general good. Punishment? No, simple necessity! – So what I wonder is, why could we not call this fatalism?

And now, looking back at Zadig (1748), don’t the angel’s pronouncements – pronouncements the author seemed to endorse at the time of writing that work – seem only ever so slightly improved upon in the philosophy of Pangloss, the latter philosophy one that the author at the time of writing Candide (1759) clearly rejected? Pangloss may have thought it “not fitting” for a philosopher to recant an earlier opinion, but the philosophe Voltaire, it seems, was not ashamed to learn and move forward.

The group member who noted the inconsistency in the angel’s lesson on destiny was concerned with Voltaire’s opinion of his imaginary Eldorado, the land where all goods were freely shared, no courts of law needed, and God only thanked, never petitioned. This was the only place Candide visited, she observed, that the author never seemed to mock. Was this, then, his Utopia, his ideal society? Was it a possible society? I asked. Wouldn’t it get boring? a couple others wondered. We left the question unresolved.

But now, let's come back to our sheep. For me, the most burning question was the meaning of “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” or, “We must cultivate our garden.” Admitting the phrase to be ambiguous, White nevertheless chooses what he calls “the more optimistic interpretation” (!), which he articulates in the following proposition: “Practical action should be substituted for ... vain speculation.” White argues passionately that in the latter part of Voltaire’s life, “cultivating his garden” took the form of unremitting battle for humanitarian causes, unceasingly writing pamphlets against all manner of intolerance and injustice. Écrasons l’infâme (“Let us crush infamy!”) is hardly the slogan of a man who has retreated from the world to live complacently behind his garden walls! Thus the author’s life supports the pragmatist interpretation.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin.
Écrasons l’infâme!

If not identical, the two phrases are certainly compatible, n'est-ce pas? I would even say quite compatible.

Voltaire’s garden was the world. It was not that of Eden, where no work was necessary. And as for Voltaire, so for us: our garden is the world we have, it admits of improvement, and it is up to us to do the work. At least, that is the lesson I take from Candide. And to my mind, he could not have chosen a happier metaphor.

This past year I have cultivated my bookstore garden very well, I think. Dog Ears Books hosted fewer events, but every single one of them was a roaring success. I have used this blog, at least from time to time, as a platform for important social and environmental causes. My vegetable garden, on the other hand, the literal garden in my life, was the victim of shameful neglect. I’m not happy about that. I can’t do everything, but I hope to have a real garden again next year -- even with the realization that, for my bookstore customers and guest authors, the metaphorical garden of my bookstore is undoubtedly the more important ground to be worked.





1 comment:

P. J. Grath said...

"Isolationist" was the word my friend had originally used. We went a few short rounds on the subject today, and he still thinks within the context of the book, leaving out historical and biographical evidence, that the final line can be interpreted as a retreat into isolationism. I think we agreed to disagree.