Recommended Reading for Writers: Candide

Candide, in the literary world, is an anomaly.  It’s a headache I’m sure for librarians and people who work at book stores.  It’s a book of fiction by a famous philosopher, so it seems people never know exactly where to place it.  With other philosophers/writers, the distinction between works is more clear, for example, with Camus.  At least in America, he’s more well known for his fiction than his philosophy, since many high-schoolers are told to read The Stranger.  No highschooler would be told by his teachers to read one of Camus’ philosophical works like Resistance, Rebellion and Death for example.  It’s usually the case with philosophers/writers that their fiction is more well-known than their tracts, as is the case with Iris Murdoch and John Fowles.  With them, their fiction better exemplifies their philosophy than their books of philosophy.  Much the same can be said for Voltaire, although you never know where Candide will be located.

Voltaire is another individual whom I’d label a writer’s-writer, although he’s technically a philosopher, although, like Nietsche, I’d say his influence has had a more profound effect on artists than it has had on fellow philosophers.  Voltaire’s influence is immense among writers.  Some of the people inspired by his work: Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and Thomas Pynchon.  Candide, outside of Don Quixote, is the most famous picaresque novel out there.  Like Don Quixote, the story follows a delusional but valiant man as he basically blunders from place to place, getting beat up and treated badly.  I think just right there you can see the connection to Yossarian from Catch-22, Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse 5, and Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow.

The gravity of the philosophy is summed up in the repeated usage of the phrase “the best of all possible worlds.”  Candide, although he’s treated horribly, believes his home to be the best of all possible worlds–but only because he hasn’t been anywhere else.  He has no frame of reference, thus his conclusion is based on limited experience.  It’s this sort of attitude that propels nationalism–since we haven’t travelled extensively (or stayed long enough in one place to get over the honeymoon stage) we assume our country is the best.  Events in the book though force Candide out of his comfortable home, only to find that it perhaps wasn’t as comfortable as he made it out to be.

In Candide, you can find the seed of revolt that would later grow into the French Revolution.  Voltaire, as a satirist in this story, is also to some extent a realist.  Candide, as a prototype of the later rebel, is constantly beat up even after leaving his country.  I believe this to be Voltaire’s warning that the revolution would not be easy.  In fact, the French Revolution would go on to be one of the bloodiest and nastiest events in world history.  Voltaire wasn’t to blame for this though; historian’s have pointed out that the entire Age of Enlightenment made its denouement in the French Revolution.  Reason was the motivation for the Age of Enlightenment, but after seeing how Reason capitulated into violence, the next generations opted instead for the fantasy implicit in Romanticism (which was just as dangerous).

Beyond philosophy though, Candide is a noteworthy story.  For all the violence, it’s surprisingly funny at times.  I think in some ways the slapstick of Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers and so on can be traced to books like Candide, Gargantua and Pantegruel, and Tom Jones.  Also, just about all satirists owe a debt to Candide.  Isn’t Huckleberry Finn a bit like Candide?  Rafting across the country in search of freedom, obstructed at every bend of the river?  Candide depicts freedom by showing its opposite.  Stupid, unthinking prejudice is what motivates the villains.

It’s my opinion that the current homogeneity in literature is the result of writers reading popular books.  This creates a sort of mimetic evolution, where each new creature resembles its ancestor for the most part, with perhaps a few hard to notice differences.  In the marketplace, this creates a sort of glut.  There are way too many authors similar to Stephen King, Stephanie Meyers, John Grisham, Dennis Lehane and so on.  I do recognize that everything has to start somewhere, but I’d urge writers in particular to at least try and start somewhere further back.  To that end, Candide is as good a place as any to start.Click here to check out my new book, The Madness of Art: Short Stories

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