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Elections, Voltaire, Candide and optimism


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  • “Those who can make you believe absurdities; can make you commit atrocities” – Voltaire

Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet-1694- 1778) was one of the key writers to have inspired the ideals of the French revolution, that history- changing explosion in 18 Century Europe. 

Politically, socially and intellectually, after 1789, the world would never be the same. Not only did the ideas of the French revolution pave the way to many of the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the generations that followed, but fundamentally changed the way we view ourselves in the universe we inhabit. Voltaire died in 1778, before the French revolution occurred. Yet, his relevance continues undiminished; the courage, the intelligence, and the vivacity of his writings, thrill and dazzle to this day.

An impressively versatile writer, Voltaire did not restrict himself to one genera, going from history writing to poetry, novels to pamphlets (mainly polemical), prose to romances. The Voltaire approach to writing of history brought new perspectives to historiography. Even his private letters (over 20,000 are on record) are studied for their brilliance of thought as well as the vitality of the language.

Napoleon Bonaparte commented that till he was 16 he would have fought for Rousseau against the friends of Voltaire, today it is the opposite… the more I read Voltaire, the more I love him. He is a man always reasonable, is feted for its social commentary, humanity and satire. 

Candide carries a damning social critique

Candide, Voltaire’s celebrated novella, is considered by many to be his ‘magnum opus’. Under a thin veil of satire, it carries a damning social critique, and, considering the times, throws an intellectual challenge amounting to political sedition. Soon after its publication, the book was banned for alleged blasphemy. Today, Candide has become a mainstay of French literature and an essential element of the Western canon.

The story is that of the eponymous hero, a young lad living a sheltered life in the country seat of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, in the kingdom of Westphalia. As was custom then, the Baron’s son is educated at home by a famed tutor, Pangloss, who taught “metphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology!” Pangloss showed that whatever happened was meant to happen, was the natural state, all is for the best, thus, optimistic we should be.

In the words of Candide: ‘Pangloss proved that there is no effect without a cause, that things cannot be other than they are, for since everything was made for the best purpose, it follows that everything is made for the best purpose. Observe: our noses were made to carry spectacles, so we have spectacles. Legs were clearly intended for breeches, and we wear them. His Lordship’s country seat was the most beautiful of mansions and her ladyship the best of all possible ladyships. And since pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all the year around.’

Of trusting nature, Candide faithfully accepts the teachings of Pangloss, was contended and optimistic (all is for the best!) until a series of unfortunate events sees him banished from the realm, thrown out to the stormy waters, life’s hardships crashing ceaselessly on the untested head of the naïve young man. Candide does not lose faith, but valiantly tries to reconcile his tutor’s teachings with the befalling misfortunes. 

While his harrowing ordeals take him far and wide, Candide never ceases to search for his true love, Lady Cunegonde, the lovely daughter of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh. One time in his travels, he even enters the fabled Eldorado, in South America. In Eldorado, even the sand and pebbles are made up of gold and precious stones, life is blissful in the secluded haven. 

Yet, Candide is unfulfilled, only his lovely Cunegonde can complete his life. In the country seat of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, the hand of Cunegonde was an impossibility, his lowly status did not permit it. But the incredible vagaries of life have touched the Baron’s family too, their kingdom destroyed, they are now enslaved and scattered. For Candide, happiness can only come through union with the lovely Cunegonde, and he hopes one day, he will.

Candide’s story could well be Sri Lanka’s story 

The story of Candide could well be Sri Lanka’s post-independence story, the parallels are many, similarities aplenty.

Our humble and credulous voter is surely Candide, the faithful believer and eternal optimist. Pangloss is the system which tells him that everything happens for a reason, and there is reason for optimism. Happiness is the lovely lady Cunegonde, with whom the voter hopes to meet up one day. For most voters, Eldorado of course is the Western World, led by the United States, to which countries they most fervently hope to migrate, while for some, less well-positioned, even the Middle East will do.

If there was no optimism, there will be no voters. Thus, every so often they trudge to the polling booth to vote for a president, a member of parliament, provincial counsellor, village counsellor, so on. At a micro level, in more sterile settings, they vote for president of the Cricket Board, Rugby Union, professional bodies and such like. The contests bring out emotion, there are meetings, discussions on policy, sometimes even heated exchanges, insults are traded. These things are said to bring out leaders, there is reason for optimism; hard times give rise to great expectations.

Pangloss (the system) tells Candide (the voter) that whatever happens, was meant to happen, there is no effect without a cause. Poverty, under-development, corruption, inefficiency, waste, negligence, shoddiness, insurrections, civil wars; all were meant to happen, everything is designed for the best, nature permits no vacuum, they are soon filled with new happenings.

Every failure is followed by a purported remedy, people rejoice, but all too soon the remedy proves a failure. Candide (the voter) can see that there is a Mahinda Rajapaksa because there was a Ranil Wickremesinghe, there is a Ranil Wickremesinghe because there was a Prabhakaran, there was a Prabhakaran because there was a J.R. Jayewardene, there was a J.R. Jayewardene because there was a Sirima Bandaranaike, there was a Sirima Bandaranaike because there was a S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, and there was a S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike because there was a D.S. Senanayake. 

Candide (the voter) needs no further convincing from Pangloss (the system); everything was meant to happen, and it happens for the best.

He also knows that across the seas there is an Eldorado, if only he can get there. In Eldorado, he will lead a stable life, earn well, live in a big house, provide his children with a first-rate education and have access to world class facilities. In that comfort and security, he develops a different image of himself, no longer a harried and denied existence, a man of value.

But something is missing, there is no Cunegonde(happiness), for man is a social being and can only realise his potential by being relevant. So he yearns for Cunegonde and the familiar land of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh; he gives up stability, for optimism.

In Voltaire’s novella, Candide finally meets up with Cunegonde and takes her for his wife, only that she is now much-abused, old, ugly, cantankerous and insufferable. They live in a small farm which Candide was able to buy with the money he brought from Eldorado. Pangloss also lives with him in the farm. All the unimaginable sufferings they had endured only reinforces the theories Pangloss holds dear. He tells Candide that the hardships they had endured were necessary to arrive at this juncture.

But Candide has evolved. He once heard a wise man say ‘work banishes those three great evils, boredom, vice and poverty.’

The story ends thus:

From time to time Pangloss would say to Candide, ‘There is a chain of events in this best of all possible worlds; for if you had not been turned out of a beautiful mansion at the point of a jackboot for the love of Lady Cunegonde, and if you had not been involved in the inquisition, and had not wandered over America on foot and had not struck the Baron with your sword, and not lost all those sheep you brought from Eldorado, you would not be here eating candied fruit and pistachio nuts.’

Candide, although in character remained the same eager faithful person, something in him had changed, imperceptibly. 

He replied: ‘That is true enough, but we must go and work in the garden.’


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