In American Candide, Mahendra Singh reboots Voltaire’s classic satire


About halfway through Mahendra Singh’s American Candide, our omniscientish (yet beguiled) narrator slows down for a moment to offer an internal critique (and useful summary) of the novel thus far:

If Candide could address the reader right now, he would probably apologize for both the breakneck pace and pixelated tenor of his adventures so far. Modern literature evolved beyond that sort of thing long ago, and an easy-to-swallow plot enlivened with a soupçon of ironic handwringing is all the rage today. The idea of a fictional hero running afoul of angry fathers, jihadi terrorists, secret police, corporate mercenaries, a cable TV network, and a secret cabal of global warmers simply boggles the reader’s mind, an authorial fate worse than death.

And yet of course many readers enjoy a good mind boggling every now and then.

I do, anyway.

Our narrator’s little condensation of the novel thus far reminds us that stylistically and formally, American Candide is a true heir to Voltaire’s Candide. Both novels offer a “breakneck pace and pixelated tenor”; both novels pulse with picaresque energy; both novels drip with delightfully venomous satiric acid; both novels are basically one-damn-thing-happening-after-another. Both novels are funny as fuck all.

Our narrator’s quick summary also jabs at the limitations of contemporary socially-conscious-realistic fiction—you know, “serious literature”—which limitations American Candide dispenses with in favor of frenzied fun. Instead of a soupçon of ironic handwringing, we get full-blown glorious agitation.

What’s all the agitation over?

American Candide’s full title is American Candide; or Neo-Optimism, a direct nod to Voltaire’s full title, Candide; or Optimism. But Singh’s subtitular prefix points to other connotations: Neoliberalism, neoconservatism—hell, neofascism—but most of all, the irony that very little of human nature really has changed in three centuries. The big ideals of the Enlightenment continue to radiate too radically for some folks.


To wit, American Candide carves sharply into the last two decades, synthesizing the dangerous follies of the Bush Gang (and the subsequent fallout of their crimes) into a kind of mythical transposition. Singh offers a cruel fun satire of the neo-optimism that underwrites blind belief in “the better-than-best of all possible worlds, 21st-century America”. The novel’s satirical sting is simultaneously sweetened by intense humor and painfully amplified by the cruel realism underneath Singh’s zany hyperbole. Tell all the truth but tell it slant, as the poet advised.

And so American Candide is terribly terribly funny but also terribly terribly sad.

For example, Singh’s take on Hurricane Katrina shows American Candide’s capacity to condense historical critique into sharp moments that bristle with anger leavened in caustic humor:

The offending hurricane was clearly an act of god, and the Freedonian government prided itself on its special relationship with god.

Another snippet (“Hooterville” is New Orleans’s Freedonian stunt double):

The winds howled, the clouds unleashed a torrential rain, and the fetid waters of an entire ocean climbed over the heads of those surviving Hootervillains too patently lazy to live on higher ground.

Just a page or two later, Candide and Pangloss mistake armed and uniformed authorities for civil peacekeepers:

Rah! Ooh! We’re better than best police! … We’re Tender-Mercynaries® from Baron Incorporated, booyah, and this is a federally-restricted emergency disaster area, yoot-yoot rah booh!

Instead of helping our heroes, the mercenaries abduct, torture, and interrogate them. Candide and Pangloss find themselves in black hoods at a black site, and even though our young hero “had been lightly sodomized and beaten and even urinated upon…his innermost Freedonian convictions had not been too badly shaken.”

It’s the reader who shakes, in a mix of laughter and rage. The world of American Candide is simply our own world dressed up in a satirical frock that somehow reveals, rather than covers over, our society’s garish ugliness, our addictions to binding illusions. Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains, commented Rousseau (Voltaire hated Rousseau).


American Candide’s  blurb warns that, “College-boy sissies will call it a Juvenalian satire upon America’s penchant for mindless optimism and casual racism.” Hooray for college-boy sissies! But no, really, I think that’s a fair assessment—as is Singh’s Candide’s assessment from the aforementioned blurb: “rage against the rage, Voltaire-dude!”

But it’s not just rage: Laughter—laughter in the all-seeing eye of absurdity—it’s laughter that undergirds American Candide.


In a review of Lowell Blair’s translation of Voltaire’s Candide, I suggested:

The book’s longevity might easily be attributed to its prescience, for Voltaire’s uncanny ability to swiftly and expertly assassinate all the rhetorical and philosophical veils by which civilization hides its inclinations to predation and evil. But it’s more than that. Pointing out that humanity is ugly and nasty and hypocritical is perhaps easy enough, but few writers can do this in a way that is as entertaining as what we find in Candide.

Singh’s update-reboot-translation of Candide fittingly answers Voltaire’s pessimistic prescience with not just bitter affirmations of contemporary predation and evil, but also with an eye toward entertainment—to the affirmations of laughter.

[Note: All the illustrations in this review are by Mahendra Singh, and are part of American Candide].

Child’s crying (Wittgenstein)


From Culture and Value.

Struggle (Wittgenstein)

Screenshot 2015-08-07 at 4.26.38 PM

From Culture and Value.

Ugly/beautiful (Wittgenstein)

Screenshot 2015-08-05 at 12.05.32 PM

From Culture and Value.

Freedom and the Self: Essays on the Philosophy of David Foster Wallace (Book acquired 7.21.2015)


Freedom and the Self: Essays on the Philosophy of David Foster Wallace is new from Columbia University Press. Their blurb:

The book Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will, published in 2010 by Columbia University Press, presented David Foster Wallace’s challenge to Richard Taylor’s argument for fatalism. In this anthology, notable philosophers engage directly with that work and assess Wallace’s reply to Taylor as well as other aspects of Wallace’s thought.

With an introduction by Steven M. Cahn and Maureen Eckert, this collection includes essays by William Hasker (Huntington University), Gila Sher (University of California, San Diego), Marcello Oreste Fiocco (University of California, Irvine), Daniel R. Kelly (Purdue University), Nathan Ballantyne (Fordham University), Justin Tosi (University of Arizona), and Maureen Eckert. These thinkers explore Wallace’s philosophical and literary work, illustrating remarkable ways in which his philosophical views influenced and were influenced by themes developed in his other writings, both fictional and nonfictional. Together with Fate, Time, and Language, this critical set unlocks key components of Wallace’s work and its traces in modern literature and thought.

Problems begin the moment we’re born (Hayao Miyazaki)

 From The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. The speaker is Hayao Miyazaki.

Every happiness that a man enjoys rests upon illusion (Schopenhauer)

Every happiness that a man enjoys, and almost every friendship that he cherishes, rest upon illusion; for, as a rule, with increase of knowledge they are bound to vanish. Nevertheless, here as elsewhere, a man should courageously pursue truth, and never weary of striving to settle accounts with himself and the world. No matter what happens to the right or to the left of him,—be it a chimaera or fancy that makes him happy, let him take heart and go on, with no fear of the desert which widens to his view. Of one thing only must he be quite certain: that under no circumstances will he discover any lack of worth in himself when the veil is raised; the sight of it would be the Gorgon that would kill him. Therefore, if he wants to remain undeceived, let him in his inmost being feel his own worth. For to feel the lack of it is not merely the greatest, but also the only true affliction; all other sufferings of the mind may not only be healed, but may be immediately relieved, by the secure consciousness of worth. The man who is assured of it can sit down quietly under sufferings that would otherwise bring him to despair; and though he has no pleasures, no joys and no friends, he can rest in and on himself; so powerful is the comfort to be derived from a vivid consciousness of this advantage; a comfort to be preferred to every other earthly blessing. Contrarily, nothing in the world can relieve a man who knows his own worthlessness; all that he can do is to conceal it by deceiving people or deafening them with his noise; but neither expedient will serve him very long.

From Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Art of Controversy. Translated by T. Bailey Saunders.

Bad books are intellectual poison (Schopenhauer)

It is in literature as in life: wherever you turn, you stumble at once upon the incorrigible mob of humanity, swarming in all directions, crowding and soiling everything, like flies in summer. Hence the number, which no man can count, of bad books, those rank weeds of literature, which draw nourishment from the corn and choke it. The time, money and attention of the public, which rightfully belong to good books and their noble aims, they take for themselves: they are written for the mere purpose of making money or procuring places. So they are not only useless; they do positive mischief. Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature has no other aim than to get a few shillings out of the pockets of the public; and to this end author, publisher and reviewer are in league.

Let me mention a crafty and wicked trick, albeit a profitable and successful one, practised by littérateurs, hack writers, and voluminous authors. In complete disregard of good taste and the true culture of the period, they have succeeded in getting the whole of the world of fashion into leading strings, so that they are all trained to read in time, and all the same thing, viz., the newest books; and that for the purpose of getting food for conversation in the circles in which they move. This is the aim served by bad novels, produced by writers who were once celebrated, as Spindler, Bulwer Lytton, Eugene Sue. What can be more miserable than the lot of a reading public like this, always bound to peruse the latest works of extremely commonplace persons who write for money only, and who are therefore never few in number? and for this advantage they are content to know by name only the works of the few superior minds of all ages and all countries. Literary newspapers, too, are a singularly cunning device for robbing the reading public of the time which, if culture is to be attained, should be devoted to the genuine productions of literature, instead of being occupied by the daily bungling commonplace persons.

Hence, in regard to reading, it is a very important thing to be able to refrain. Skill in doing so consists in not taking into one’s hands any book merely because at the time it happens to be extensively read; such as political or religious pamphlets, novels, poetry, and the like, which make a noise, and may even attain to several editions in the first and last year of their existence. Consider, rather, that the man who writes for fools is always sure of a large audience; be careful to limit your time for reading, and devote it exclusively to the works of those great minds of all times and countries, who o’ertop the rest of humanity, those whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct. You can never read bad literature too little, nor good literature too much. Bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind. Because people always read what is new instead of the best of all ages, writers remain in the narrow circle of the ideas which happen to prevail in their time; and so the period sinks deeper and deeper into its own mire

From “On Books and Reading” by Arthur Schopenhauer.

Diogenes — Jules Bastien-Lepage

Theory (Pessoa)


“The feeling of the sublime is a mixed feeling” (Schiller)

The feeling of the sublime is a mixed feeling. It is at once a painful state, which in its paroxysm is manifested by a kind of shudder, and a joyous state, that may rise to rapture, and which, without being properly a pleasure, is greatly preferred to every kind of pleasure by delicate souls. This union of two contrary sensations in one and the same feeling proves in a peremptory manner our moral independence. For as it is absolutely impossible that the same object should be with us in two opposite relations, it follows that it is we ourselves who sustain two different relations with the object. It follows that these two opposed natures should be united in us, which, on the idea of this object, are brought into play in two perfectly opposite ways. Thus we experience by the feeling of the beautiful that the state of our spiritual nature is not necessarily determined by the state of our sensuous nature; that the laws of nature are not necessarily our laws; and that there is in us an autonomous principle independent of all sensuous impressions.

The sublime object may be considered in two lights. We either represent it to our comprehension, and we try in vain to make an image or idea of it, or we refer it to our vital force, and we consider it as a power before which ours is nothing. But though in both cases we experience in connection with this object the painful feeling of our limits, yet we do not seek to avoid it; on the contrary we are attracted to it by an irresistible force. Could this be the case if the limits of our imagination were at the same time those of our comprehension? Should we be willingly called back to the feeling of the omnipotence of the forces of nature if we had not in us something that cannot be a prey of these forces. We are pleased with the spectacle of the sensuous infinite, because we are able to attain by thought what the senses can no longer embrace and what the understanding cannot grasp. The sight of a terrible object transports us with enthusiasm, because we are capable of willing what the instincts reject with horror, and of rejecting what they desire. We willingly allow our imagination to find something in the world of phenomena that passes beyond it; because, after all, it is only one sensuous force that triumphs over another sensuous force, but nature, notwithstanding all her infinity, cannot attain to the absolute grandeur which is in ourselves. We submit willingly to physical necessity both our well-being and our existence. This is because the very power reminds us that there are in us principles that escape its empire. Man is in the hands of nature, but the will of man is in his own hands.

Nature herself has actually used a sensuous means to teach us that we are something more than mere sensuous natures. She has even known how to make use of our sensations to put us on the track of this discovery—that we are by no means subject as slaves to the violence of the sensations. And this is quite a different effect from that which can be produced by the beautiful; I mean the beautiful of the real world, for the sublime itself is surpassed by the ideal. In the presence of beauty, reason and sense are in harmony, and it is only on account of this harmony that the beautiful has attraction for us. Consequently, beauty alone could never teach us that our destination is to act as pure intelligences, and that we are capable of showing ourselves such. In the presence of the sublime, on the contrary, reason and the sensuous are not in harmony, and it is precisely this contradiction between the two which makes the charm of the sublime—its irresistible action on our minds. Here the physical man and the moral man separate in the most marked manner; for it is exactly in the presence of objects that make us feel at once how limited the former is that the other makes the experience of its force. The very thing that lowers one to the earth is precisely that which raises the other to the infinite.

From Frederick Schiller’s essay “On the Sublime.

Karlheinz Stockausen on Human Evolution

“Sneezing absorbs all the functions of the soul” (Pascal)

Sneezing absorbs all the functions of the soul, as well as work does; but we do not draw therefrom the same conclusions against the greatness of man, because it is against his will. And although we bring it on ourselves, it is nevertheless against our will that we sneeze. It is not in view of the act itself; it is for another end. And thus it is not a proof of the weakness of man, and of his slavery under that action.

It is not disgraceful for man to yield to pain, and it is disgraceful to yield to pleasure. This is not because pain comes to us from without, and we ourselves seek pleasure; for it is possible to seek pain, and yield to it purposely, without this kind of baseness. Whence comes it, then, that reason thinks it honourable to succumb under stress of pain, and disgraceful to yield to the attack of pleasure? It is because pain does not tempt and attract us. It is we ourselves who choose it voluntarily, and will it to prevail over us. So that we are masters of the situation; and in this man yields to himself. But in pleasure it is man who yields to pleasure. Now only mastery and sovereignty bring glory, and only slavery brings shame.

From Pascal’s Pensées.

“The struggle alone pleases us, not the victory” (Pascal)

The struggle alone pleases us, not the victory. We love to see animals fighting, not the victor infuriated over the vanquished. We would only see the victorious end; and, as soon as it comes, we are satiated. It is the same in play, and the same in the search for truth. In disputes we like to see the clash of opinions, but not at all to contemplate truth when found. To observe it with pleasure, we have to see it emerge out of strife. So in the passions, there is pleasure in seeing the collision of two contraries; but when one acquires the mastery, it becomes only brutality. We never seek things for themselves, but for the search. Likewise in plays, scenes which do not rouse the emotion of fear are worthless, so are extreme and hopeless misery, brutal lust, and extreme cruelty.

From Pascal’s Pensées.

Writers may be classified as meteors, planets and fixed stars (Schopenhauer)

Writers may be classified as meteors, planets and fixed stars. A meteor makes a striking effect for a moment. You look up and cry There! and it is gone for ever. Planets and wandering stars last a much longer time. They often outshine the fixed stars and are confounded with them by the inexperienced; but this only because they are near. It is not long before they must yield their place; nay, the light they give is reflected only, and the sphere of their influence is confined to their own orbit—their contemporaries. Their path is one of change and movement, and with the circuit of a few years their tale is told. Fixed stars are the only ones that are constant; their position in the firmament is secure; they shine with a light of their own; their effect to-day is the same as it was yesterday, because, having no parallax, their appearance does not alter with a difference in our standpoint. They belong not to one system, one nation only, but to the universe. And just because they are so very far away, it is usually many years before their light is visible to the inhabitants of this earth.

From The Art of Literature by Arthur Schopenhauer.


Knowledge is eternally incommunicable (Robert Louis Stevenson)

The problem of education is twofold: first to know, and then to utter.  Every one who lives any semblance of an inner life thinks more nobly and profoundly than he speaks; and the best of teachers can impart only broken images of the truth which they perceive.  Speech which goes from one to another between two natures, and, what is worse, between two experiences, is doubly relative.  The speaker buries his meaning; it is for the hearer to dig it up again; and all speech, written or spoken, is in a dead language until it finds a willing and prepared hearer.  Such, moreover, is the complexity of life, that when we condescend upon details in our advice, we may be sure we condescend on error; and the best of education is to throw out some magnanimous hints.  No man was ever so poor that he could express all he has in him by words, looks, or actions; his true knowledge is eternally incommunicable, for it is a knowledge of himself; and his best wisdom comes to him by no process of the mind, but in a supreme self-dictation, which keeps varying from hour to hour in its dictates with the variation of events and circumstances.

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay “Lay Morals.”

Equivocal, tortured, fleeting, dream-like existence (Schopenhauer)

When one considers how vast and how close to us is the problem of existence—this equivocal, tortured, fleeting, dream-like existence of ours—so vast and so close that a man no sooner discovers it than it overshadows and obscures all other problems and aims; and when one sees how all men, with few and rare exceptions, have no clear consciousness of the problem, nay, seem to be quite unaware of its presence, but busy themselves with everything rather than with this, and live on, taking no thought but for the passing day and the hardly longer span of their own personal future, either expressly discarding the problem or else over-ready to come to terms with it by adopting some system of popular metaphysics and letting it satisfy them; when, I say, one takes all this to heart, one may come to the opinion that man may be said to be a thinking being only in a very remote sense, and henceforth feel no special surprise at any trait of human thoughtlessness or folly; but know, rather, that the normal man’s intellectual range of vision does indeed extend beyond that of the brute, whose whole existence is, as it were, a continual present, with no consciousness of the past or the future, but not such an immeasurable distance as is generally supposed.

From The Art of Literature by Arthur Schopenhauer.