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One of the wonders of modern times is how despite a steady diet of very bad news—world wars, hideous weapons, genocides, environmental degradation, extinctions, more wars, totalitarian regimes—the tone of modern life, particularly in the United States though not wholly, has been, even as the twenty-first century replaced the twentieth, chipper, a smiling have-a-nice-day emoticon, upbeat as a TV comedy show, glowing with neon confidence. The good news behind the affable tone (“Doing great,” as a friend of mine always puts it) has been the steady increase of comfortable, convenient, efficient things, the fruits of factories and the petroleum that has made it all go and materially abetted countless lives. The good news has been the power of invention and discovery along with the power of the new, as in whatever is new is better, life thus becoming a betterment campaign, a paean to amelioration, aka progress, on all fronts. Virtually anyone born into the modern world has been enrolled in that campaign, though how sentient we are is another matter. Characters in Shakespeare register grief, regret, frustration, ambition, fortitude and giddy love but no one registers something called “stress.” No one is a human machine guilty of “dysfunction.”
Modern people have been the recipient of great expectations pertaining to their time right here, right now. Heaven, such as it is, can wait. Every advertisement, every slogan, every billboard, every campaign promise, every five-year plan, every ideological leap and wave, every fashion change, every “lifestyle” trend has played on great expectations. At this point, we are at the parody stage—Android! Version 9.2! Even More New and Improved!—but that doesn’t slow down the hype. How much a given group has been allowed to participate in those expectations has been another story—often a cruel one. The betterment narrative, however, has been relentless and become second-nature in the literal sense. The genius, so to speak, of the narrative, even when the expectations are dashed, is that it possesses an irresistible human component—flattery. Your opinion is requested; your dollar is sought; your viewing option is cultivated; your vote is solicited: all this hubbub is for you! Serfs, ghetto-dwellers, slaves, women-as-chattel, colonial subjects, all have been variously liberated in the course of two centuries. Liberation naturally creates expectations along with an abiding question: where does the dynamic go next?
Amid the sheer noise of modern times, it has been easy to dismiss as so much nostalgic rubbish any sense of limitations, of humility, of sharing the earth with others, of gratitude for the sheer fact of being alive. Both communists and capitalists have agreed on this aggrandizing point. If millions of lives were destroyed in the process of global industrialization, that was unfortunate. No one promised such development was a polite affair. The excitement of those in power has overruled the agony of those not in power, the lives lost in “accidents,” in the oppression wrought by imperialism and in the numbing routine of often meaningless “work” that the Nazis, with their evil sense of irony, promoted with their Arbeit Macht Frei. The pharaohs and the sugar cane plantation overlords were tethered to the pre-industrial ways. Steeped as they were in modern efficiency, the Nazis were pleased that a paragon of American industry, Henry Ford, was a rabid anti-Semite.
It may be that the basic fact of human appetite, our ever eating our next meal until we reach the last one, disposes us to optimism despite many grisly doings that could lead anyone to severely doubt the worth of human beings. A particular vibrancy resides within us, pulsating, driving us along, although, as history makes plain and continues to make plain, this vibrancy can be murderous. Many annals of killings, small scale and large, have been compiled, as in who slaughtered whom while various writers have attempted to put the death-dealing (and typically male) impulse in perspective. In their different ways, Sigmund Freud and Kurt Vonnegut both come to mind and before them, the 18th century Frenchman known as Voltaire and his book Candide or Optimism, published in 1759 and still in print. In chronicling much loss of life, to say nothing of tortures and rapes, Voltaire managed to be at once passionate, disabused and droll. Behind the marvelous prose loom roughly equal amounts of exasperation, worldliness, amusement, pity and contempt. If a book can be both good-natured and lacerating, Candide is that book.
What interests Voltaire is not sheer carnage, although the book offers many examples. “Scattered brains and severed limbs littered the ground” can stand for many sentences. It’s the subtitle of Optimism that gives the book its imperishable, unsettling edge. What score is being paid off here? The answer is a large one, in keeping with the encyclopédique impulse of the French enlightenment. In its picaresque blend of the real and the fantastic (seemingly dead people keep coming back to life), Candide offers an overview of the ultra upbeat outlook exemplified by the philosopher/teacher Pangloss who holds that this is the best of all possible worlds. Since this world includes people, one can say immediately that such a view is lunatic, but Voltaire has a bigger aim in mind. He is out to explode—the verb is not too strong given the context—the optimistic outlook that refuses to recognize reality and must insist, at any cost, that matters are not merely agreeable (“okay” would be the word) but ordained to be more than agreeable (“doing great”). Great expectations lead to great assertions. Each of us can be a walking manifest destiny.
Voltaire was writing from a more static, stratified world than ours. God was still in His empyrean. The engine of improvement with its perfectionist attachments had not kicked into high gear. “Betterment” had not replaced “best” as a raison d’être. “Best” signifies a confidence or conceit, depending on how you look at it, perhaps willful, perhaps discerning, perhaps both. “Betterment” tends to lean to the willful in its assumption that a rewarding life must be devoted to maintaining this x is somehow better than that y. The degree to which people have taken on that putatively objective assumption is sobering. Comparison is human but betterment is relentless, not so much a movement toward something as it is a treadmill of longing, idealism, and consumerism. Very various impulses run together. It’s fair to ask where—to resort to a suitably mechanical metaphor—is the pause button? Environmental disaster? Nuclear war? An unbelievably severe pandemic?
Satire may be the saddest of literary genres, its keen edge rooted in impotence and indignation. An exaggerated tableau, however shrewd, must bow down to an indifferent or vindictive reality. It is hard to say which dispensation is worse. For Voltaire, suffering becomes a joke of sorts. Even in the hands of a genius, wit can seem an idle, self-regarding tool. The world is that bad.
At the end of Candide the assorted characters, battered severely by human events, set up a sort of commune and half-way house where they grow vegetables and keep a low profile. “Let’s work without speculating,” is how one of the crew puts it. Amusing words from the pen of a philosophe, but some of Voltaire’s wisdom stems from a sense of what is right in front of us rather than what may be ahead of us. Our speculations are far from pure and tend to be accomplices to miserable inclinations—fear and loathing being at the top of the list. Voltaire opposed the infamy of what he considered murderous superstition. Unfortunately, those endorsing the superstitions viewed actions such as the Inquisition as virtuous, much as the kings going to war in Voltaire’s time viewed their actions as virtuous despite the blood shed and women raped. It hasn’t been hard to give virtue a bad name.
Neither God nor the garden that Candide speaks to in the last line of the book wants our optimism. Our speculative habits, as Voltaire limns them, always insist on adding something, an improvement of one sort or another. This may be human restlessness that goes along with appetite, but it’s worth noting that one state of being that the brilliant satirist left out of his recital of farcical and frightening woe is reverence. He would leave it out because it didn’t fit his slyly polemical purposes—to reveal human folly in all its desperate nastiness and absurd pride. Yet what goes with tending the garden is revering the garden. Whether one chooses to revere the Creator or the creation matters very much: focusing on the Creator has tended to block out the on-going miracle of the creation. The central need, however, is the time-out to revere what abets life in the first place and is often taken for granted in the pell-mell of human industry, the work that does not make us free.
As a creator, Voltaire despised destruction. One misery of human life, beginning with war but not ending there, was (and is) how much human energy was (and is) devoted to destruction. Didn’t men, to bring up that gender again, have anything better to do? They even engaged in destruction in the name of God. To be cheerful in the sense of appreciating the opportunity to be a person on earth is admirable. To be cheerful in the mindless service of automatic optimism that ignores human malfeasance is ridiculous. To believe in betterment as an end in its own right is also ridiculous. Human doings go on and on—a giddy cycle of ever-new, ever-unfounded confidence. Early in the book, Voltaire makes the case forthrightly: “Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches.” We thus elevate our status with “reasons,” but we pay, as a battered, no-longer naive Candide can testify at the book’s end, a substantial price for our eager sophistry.
In 2000, Baron Wormser was appointed Poet Laureate of Maine by Governor Angus King. He served in that capacity for six years and visited many libraries and schools to talk about books and writing.
Copyright 2023 Baron Wormser
Witty and caustic, Candide has ranked as one of the world’s great satires since its first publication in 1759. In the story of the trials and travails of the youthful Candide, his mentor Dr. Pangloss, and a host of other characters, Voltaire mercilessly satirizes and exposes romance, science, philosophy, religion, and government. Buy the book.
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“The central need, however, is the time-out to revere what abets life in the first place and is often taken for granted in the pell-mell of human industry, the work that does not make us free.”
“Yet what goes with tending the garden is revering the garden.”
There it is.
Yes, gardening without reverence is an empty chore.
Not only the content, I also enjoyed the sheer excellent of thought and writing. “Human doings go on and on—a giddy cycle of ever-new, ever-unfounded confidence. “
Thanks Rose Mary. Baron is one of my favorite writers. He brings great learning, a sense of decency and ethics, and an elegant prose style to his essays.