Sunday, September 20, 2015
Sunday Star sometimes gifts some GOoD READS!
First published in 1759, Candide is philosopher Voltaire’s most enduring work, and one of the most influential French novels of all time. While written to depict a rejection of Leibnizian optimism – Voltaire was a vocal opponent of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz’s philosophy that our current universe is the best possible one that God could have created – the novel works equally well as a broader critique of any dogmatic system of belief.
In the novel, protagonist Candide starts as an unquestioning believer in optimism, but is put through a seemingly unending series of hardships that slowly but surely erode his faith in this school of thought.
These events skilfully weave current events and political issues of that period into the narrative, from the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal to the Seven Years War that shaped so much of the world’s colonial history.
Using these, Voltaire highlights many other themes that still remain relevant: money and its corrupting influences over those in power; the hypocrisy of many religious figures and institutions; and the world’s exploitative power structures.
Really, it seems almost inevitable that I would subconsciously start drawing parallels between Voltaire’s sharp satire of Enlightenment-age Europe and the often farcical happenings of the Malaysian political landscape in recent months – perhaps even more so because I am looking at it from the other side of the world, from where these events somehow seem both remote and personal at once.
In fact, for all its incisive wit and humour, the reason Candide works so well is its adherence to actual events. His mode of satire lies not so much in making up broadly exaggerated versions of real life, but rather, simply narrating real-life events in such a dispassionate and matter-of-fact manner that they are rendered ridiculous.
It is a method any Malaysian discussing our politics should be familiar with: the truth is so absurd that there is no need to try and make it funny. I dare say it’s practically impossible, in fact, to read Candide without seeing some of our own local figures in the book’s characters. And neither is this exclusive to Malaysia, for more than 250 years after its publication, Voltaire’s observations of the world’s political and power structures remain depressingly accurate.
As such, despite its humour, reading Candide can feel rather thankless; if we as a species haven’t managed to progress in two and a half centuries, then what hope is there for us? Even the book’s ending, where Candide seems to have completely rejected optimism and isn’t left with a specific outlook on the world, seems to signify an emptiness of hope.
For me, however, it is exactly at the book’s conclusion that Voltaire leaves us with, if not hope, at least a possibility. Candide’s closing line is often touted to be among the best in literature: when, after everything they’ve been through, Candide’s tutor Pangloss once again broaches an optimistic interpretation of events, Candide replies: “All that is very well… but let us cultivate our garden.”
There have been numerous interpretations of this ending, but for me, particularly in the context of Malaysia, it offers something more than empty optimism. To my mind, this sentence alludes to the importance of taking control of something and working to improve it, even if, at first, it is only over something small.
By uttering this sentence, Candide finally becomes something other than a passive participant. We cannot hope for improvement, the novel seems to say, if all we do is theorise and discuss it. Instead, we need to become a part of the process.
And so this year, for Malaysia Day, my wish is that we all find and cultivate a small piece of the society we one day hope to be a part of.
Sharmilla Ganesan is currently a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland in the United States. She is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.