Q: Describe one of your favorite books/films and why it means so much to you?
Candid by Voltaire. I read it in year 11. I wasn’t a big reader at the time. I used to get into a lot of trouble at school, and didn’t have many allies. Head of French was an ally. And she’d occasionally give me books to read. One such book was Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This mammoth of a book took me so long to read. It’s probably not a mammoth by today’s standards, but at the time, when the biggest book you’ve read is Holes, this is a huge book. I enjoyed it so much that I got Martel’s other book, which was totally weird and definitely not what I was looking for. Eventually I found a website called What is Stephen Harper Reading. In essence, it was a series of book recommendations by Yann Martel to then Prime Minister of Canada. Each week, Yann would recommend a book for the Prime Minister to read and he’d explain why he should read that book.
Because I liked Yann’s writing so much, I found myself reading this blog regularly. And eventually I came across his description of Candid. It made me want to read it. And I read it and loved it. Simple prose that was really funny, but felt like it had a message behind it. 16 year old me looking to do A Level French decided Voltaire was my guy. I have since fallen out of love with pretentious philosophy-type French books, but I still, to this day, find myself going back to this book. Particularly its last three chapters.
Candid is a character study of a poor sod who finds himself in increasingly shitter situations, and yet, for some reason, preservers. And it’s not clear why. Candid is basically all of us. If I haven’t sold you on this book…here is Yann telling you to read it and why.
Yann’s letter to the Prime Minister:
Dear Mr. Harper,
You’ve no doubt heard the theory of six degrees of separation, how each one of us on this planet is connected to everyone else through a chain of five people. Well, in a way, you and I are linked through the seventh book I am sending you, ….
Candide, published in 1759, is a short, funny and engaging tale about a serious problem: evil and the suffering it engenders. Voltaire lived between 1694 and 1778 and was one of the great gadflies of his time. In Candide he lampooned what he felt was the facile optimism of the day, an optimism best expressed by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s formulation that our world is “the best of all possible worlds” (you might remember that line from an ironic Kris Kristofferson song). The reasoning behind this conclusion was that since God is good and all-powerful, the world cannot be anything but the best conceivable world, with the optimum combination of elements. Evil was thus posited as serving the purpose of maximizing good, since it is in having a choice between good and evil that we fallible human beings can improve ourselves and become good.
Now, we can perhaps agree that adversity can bring the best out of us, and it is still Christian doctrine that we are “perfected by suffering”. But such a blithe justification of evil has fairly obvious limits. It might do for the sort of evil that comes as a kick-in-the-behind, as a retrospective blessing in disguise. But will it serve for heinous evil and egregious misfortune?
Voltaire wrote Candide in part as a reaction to just such an instance of misfortune. On the morning of November 1, 1755, a cataclysmic earthquake struck Lisbon. Immediately most churches in the city collapsed, killing thousands of people who were inside. Other public buildings also came down, as did over 12,000 dwellings. Once the tremors had stopped, a tsunami struck the city, and after that, fires wrecked further havoc. Over sixty thousand people were killed and the material damage, in an age still innocent of the destruction that modern bombs can wreck, was unprecedented. The Lisbon earthquake had the same troubling effect on people at the time as the Holocaust had in our time. But whereas the Nazi barbarity had us mostly wondering about human nature, the Lisbon earthquake had people wondering about the nature of God. How could God allow such cruelty to take place in a city as piously Catholic and evangelical as Lisbon, and of all days on All Saints’ Day? In what conceivable way could killing so many people in one stroke maximise the good of this world?
Answering such troubling questions — the Holy Grail of theodicy — remains as troubling then as now. Perhaps the answer still is that we lack perspective, that in a way that we mortals just can’t understand, great evil is part of a divine plan and makes ultimate sense.
In the meantime, until God comes down and fully explains that plan, evil galls. Voltaire was religiously outraged by the Lisbon earthquake. For him it was clear: there was no Providence, there was no God. To be eternally optimistic in the face of great evil and suffering was not only insensitive to its victims, but morally and intellectually untenable.
And he set to prove it in the story of Candide, the naive young man from Thunder-ten-tronckh, in Westphalia, who could have had as his motto “All is for the best,” such an optimist was he at the start of the novel. Wait till you see all the catastrophes that befall him. The novel ends, when all has been said and done and suffered, with a simple call to quiet, peaceable and collective work: “we must go and work in the garden”, “il faut cultiver notre jardin.”
That call still stands as perhaps the only practical solution to what we can do in the face of evil: spend our time simply, fruitfully and with others.
Yann Martel .
encl: one inscribed paperback book