Candide — Voltaire

I liked pretty much all of the assigned reading in high school (okay, I hated every page of Tess of the D’Ubervilles). Some of the books I left behind, metaphorically at least (Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye), and some books bewildered me, but I returned to them later, perhaps better equipped (Billy Budd; Leaves of Grass). No book stuck with me quite as much as Candide, Voltaire’s scathing satire of the Enlightenment.


I remember being unenthusiastic when my 10th grade English teacher assigned the book—it was the cover, I suppose (I stole the book and still have it), but the novel quickly absorbed all of my attention. I devoured it. It was (is) surreal and harsh and violent and funny, a prolonged attack on all of the bullshit that my 15 year old self seemed to perceive everywhere: baseless optimism, can-do spirit, and the guiding thesis that “all is for the best.” The novel gelled immediately with the Kurt Vonnegut books I was gobbling up, seemed to antecede the Beat lit I was flirting with. And while the tone of the book certainly held my attention, its structure, pacing, and plot enthralled me. I’d never read a book so willing to kill off major characters (repeatedly), to upset and displace its characters, to shift their fortunes so erratically and drastically. Not only did Voltaire repeatedly shake up the fortunes of Candide and his not-so-merry band—Pangloss, the ignorant philosopher; Cunegonde, Candide’s love interest and raison d’etre and her maid the Old Woman; Candide’s valet Cacambo; Martin, his cynical adviser—but the author seemed to play by Marvel Comics rules, bringing dead characters back to life willy nilly. While most of the novels I had been reading (both on my own and those assigned) relied on plot arcs, grand themes, and character development, Candide was (is) a bizarre series of one-damn-thing-happening-after-another. Each chapter was its own little saga, an adventure writ in miniature, with attendant rises and falls. I loved it.

I reread Candide this weekend for no real reason in particular. I’ve read it a few times since high school, but it was never assigned again—not in college, not in grad school—which may or may not be a shame. I don’t know. In any case, the book still rings my bell; indeed, for me it’s the gold standard of picaresque novels, a genre I’ve come to dearly love. Perhaps I reread it with the bad taste of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor still in my mouth. As I worked my way through that bloated mess, I just kept thinking, “Okay, Voltaire did it 200 years earlier, much better and much shorter.”

Revisiting Candide for the first time in years, I find that the book is richer, meaner, and far more violent than I’d realized. Even as a callow youth, I couldn’t miss Voltaire’s attack on the Age of Reason, sustained over a slim 120 pages or so. Through the lens of more experience (both life and reading), I see that Voltaire’s project in Candide is not just to satirize the Enlightenment’s ideals of rationality and the promise of progress, but also to actively destabilize those ideals through the structure of the narrative itself. Voltaire offers us a genuine adventure narrative and punctures it repeatedly, allowing only the barest slivers of heroism—and those only come from his innocent (i.e. ignorant) title character. Candide is topsy-turvy, steeped in both irony and violence.

As a youth, the more surreal aspects of the violence appealed to me. (An auto-da-fé! Man on monkey murder! Earthquakes! Piracy! Cannibalizing buttocks!). The sexy illustrations in the edition I stole from my school helped intrigue me as well—


The self who read the book this weekend still loves a narrative steeped in violence—I can’t help it—Blood Meridian, 2666, the Marquis de Sade, Denis Johnson, etc.—but I realize now that, despite its occasional cartoonish distortions, Candide is achingly aware of the wars of Europe and the genocide underway in the New World. Voltaire by turns attacks rape and slavery, serfdom and warfare, always with a curdling contempt for the powers that be.

But perhaps I’ve gone too long though without quoting from this marvelous book, so here’s a passage from the last chapter that perhaps gives summary to Candide and his troupe’s rambling adventures: by way of context (and, honestly spoiling nothing), Candide and his friends find themselves eking out a living in boredom (although not despair) and finding war still raging around them (no shortage of heads on spikes); Candide’s Cunegonde is no longer fair but “growing uglier everyday” (and shrewish to boot!), Pangloss no longer believes that “it is the best of all worlds” they live in, yet he still preaches this philosophy, Martin finds little solace in the confirmation of his cynicism and misanthropy, and the Old Woman is withering away to death. The group finds their only entertainment comes from disputing abstract questions—

But when they were not arguing, their boredom became so oppressive that one day the old woman was driven to say, “I’d like to know which is worse: to be raped a hundred times by Negro pirates, to have one buttock cut off, to run the guantlet in the Bulgar army, to be whipped and hanged in an auto-da-fé, to be dissected, to be a galley slave—in short, to suffer all the miseries we’ve all gone through—or stay here and do nothing.

“That’s a hard question,” said Candide.

It’s amazing that over 200 years ago Voltaire posits boredom as an existential dilemma equal to violence; indeed, as its opposite. (I should stop and give credit here to Lowell Blair’s marvelous translation, which sheds much of the finicky verbiage you might find in other editions in favor of a dry, snappy deadpan, characterized in Candide’s rejoinder above). 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 straight up 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. Beyond that entertainment factor, Candide earns its famous conclusion: “We must cultivate our garden,” young (or not so young now) Candide avers, a simple, declarative statement, one that points to the book’s grand thesis: we must work to overcome poverty, ignorance, and, yes, boredom. I’m sure, gentle, well-read reader, that you’ve read Candide before, but I’d humbly suggest to read it again.

The Sot-Weed Factor — John Barth

I finished the audiobook version of John Barth’s novel The Sot-Weed Factor last week. I’d tried to read the novel a few times in the past, never getting past page 56 of my Bantam mass market edition, which runs to 819 pages. That’s a long book. The unabridged audiobook runs just over 36 hours. That’s a long time. Too long, really, for what Barth has to offer here, but before I get into that, I’ll give a tip of the hat to the excellent production values and the wonderful voice talent of Geoffrey Centlivre, who is by turns expressive, wry, pathetic, bathetic, or understated, depending on what Barth’s prose calls for. He understands the novel and does an estimable job translating it.

The Sot-Weed Factor enjoys the reputation of being Barth’s finest work (although let me just go ahead and disagree with this generalized assumption that I’ve attributed to no one in particular and say up front that the novel is ultimately a boring overlong drag and anyone interested in Barth is better off starting with Lost in the Funhouse). The novel parodies a number of literary styles — Bildungsromans, picaresques, Künstlerromans, adventure stories, histories, romances, and serialized narratives in general. Adopting the language (diction, tone, syntax, form and all) of 17th century prose, Barth tells the story of Ebenezer Cooke, a real historical figure whose 1708 poem “The Sotweed Factor, or A Voyage to Maryland, A Satyr” is considered by some literary historians to be the first American satire.

Barth’s Ebenezer is an innocent soul à la Voltaire’s Candide (hero of another picaresque that has the decency to be funnier, sharper, and, ahem, much, much shorter), a would-be poet whose spurious claims to being “Poet Laureate of Maryland” come constantly under fire. Ebenezer attributes his artistic powers (which are dubious at best) to the metaphysical virtue of his virginity; one of the major conflicts of the plot of The Sot-Weed Factor is poor Ebenezer defending his cherry from the various whores and ne’er-do-well who populate the book. And there are a lot of these whores and ne’er-do-wells: rascals and pirates and pimps and thieves and slavers and sluts of every stripe shuffle through The Sot-Weed Factor, underscoring several of Barth’s themes — innocence versus experience, perception versus reality, virtue versus vice, and stability versus flux.

In my reading, this last theme — the instability of identity, particularly American identity — is the major thrust of The Sot-Weed Factor. But before going into this idea, I suppose I should share at least some of the plot, or at least try to summarize it, which is almost impossible, as it shifts and slants and reverses in every chapter. In the interest of making a (very) long story short, dear reader, and making my job a bit easier, I’ll borrow from Don D’Ammassa’s summary (he’s got a great Barth page for those inclined)—

The story is set during the 17th Century.  Ebenezer Cooke is the son of a well-to-do British gentleman who owns property in the Maryland colony in the New World.  Ebenezer and his sister are tutored by Henry Burlingame until his sudden dismissal while they are in their late teens.  Ebenezer is sent off to boarding school, where he finds it difficult to form a bond between himself and his environment, eventually retreating into poetry.  He is also afflicted by an extreme form of indecisiveness in which he is literally frozen in place, some times for hours on end, incapable of making a decision.  His abstraction from the world is reminiscent of Jacob Horner and Todd Andrews, although exaggerated even further.

The plot grows rapidly more complicated.  Ebenezer is apprenticed in London, where he fails to prosper.  He becomes infatuated with a prostitute, despite his own militant virginity; his poor prospects are then conveyed to his father, who ships him off to the family holdings in the colonies.  Ebenezer decides to request a commission from Lord Calvert, governor of Maryland, to become its official Poet Laureate, believes that he has been awarded that honor, and sets out for the new world.  In the course of that journey, he rediscovers Henry Burlingame, who has taken on another identity, is kidnapped by pirates, walks the plank, and eventually reaches land.

The complexity and twisted humor that ensue cannot be adequately described in a few words.  Secret identities are revealed, coincidences flourish, absurd situations follow in rapid sequence.  Ebenezer is honored and disgraced, is captured by angry natives and threatened with death.  He discovers pieces of a secret journal of the adventures of John Smith and Pocahontas, and helps Henry Burlingame discover the truth about his own origins.  There is considerable bawdy content, much of it surrounding the mysterious process by which John Smith managed to sexually satisfy Pocahontas.

I’m impressed with D’Ammassa’s concision here—he neatly puts together the major elements of a sprawling, fat novel. As you may see from D’Ammassa’s summary, The Sot-Weed Factor is all about the instability of place, the lack of solid ground in swampy Maryland, the discontinuity of historical narrative, the inability of art to overcome reality, and the rapid reversals of fortune and identity that might occur in a New World. It’s all “assy-turvy,” to use one of the character’s terms. The Sot-Weed Factor here shows its post-modern bona fides; there’s a constant inconstancy, a doubling of people, places, things, and then a trebling. Ebenezer’s Old World romantic virtues—his insistence on the metaphysical value of his virginity and the power of his feeble poetry—are not just contested but obliterated (only poor Eb’s too blind to see this). Barth reworks American history, dismantling and satirizing the Pocahontas narrative, and emphasizing the plight of the native Americans, enslaved Africans, and indentured Europeans in this brave new world.

The book is also a dismantling of literary history, a jab at metaphysical poetry and identity narratives like Tom Jones or the work of Dickens. While Ebenezer spouts the loftiest supplications to his airy muse, Barth keeps his humor stuck sloppily in the toilet. The Sot-Weed Factor surpasses any ribald work I’ve ever read. The book is larded with dick jokes, fart jokes, jokes about diarrhea, jokes about sex and venereal diseases and so on—it culminates with (as D’Ammassa points out above) a riff on 17th century Viagra. In short, Bath focuses most of his keen literary powers on the kind of sophomoric japes that might keep Bevis and Butthead’s attention. Again, it’s all “assy-turvy.”

Barth’s toilet humor is at times funny, but it becomes tiresome over the book’s long duration, especially when it’s often the sole reward for long expanses of poorly-conceived exposition. I found myself bored to tears at times listening to The Sot-Weed Factor, and had to force myself to continue in its final third, a challenge that became easier when the narrative finally picked up a bit. Just a bit though. The book’s major problem is not its bloat though, or its saggy exposition, or even its redundant fart jokes. No, these feel more a symptom than a cause, and I think they are symptom of a too self-satisfied (or self-satisfying) author; over its 800+ pages (or 36+ hours), The Sot-Weed Factor reveals itself as the literary equivalent of a very bright writer jacking off to his own research. In what must be the worst case of unrestrained writing I’ve ever seen (or heard, I suppose), Barth allows two of his characters, catty women arguing, one English, one French, to trade insults with each other, all various euphemisms for “whore.” This process goes on for minutes in the audiobook version and for six goddamn pages in my Bantam edition and, like much of the details in this fat beast, does little or nothing to add to the narrative. It’s as if in his research Barth has dug up dozens and dozens of lovely little antiquated slurs and can’t bear to edit a single one. If  the process rewards Barth, it does little for the reader.

But if literary diarrhea is the mode of the book, then I guess it mirrors one of The Sot-Weed Factor’s many rude motifs. Personally, I wish I had my time back. There’s great value in reimagining the origin of America (I think immediately of Terence Malick’s The New World or Toni Morrison’s A Mercy or even some of William Blake’s work), but Barth’s narrative seems too self-indulgent and unrewarding to make any real claims to democratic (or, if I’m feeling harsh, artistic) insight. Perhaps The Sot-Weed Factor is the kind of novel that remains indivisible from its form, and perhaps to a contemporary reader like me this form is just too flabby and flaccid to spark spirit. As I’ve tried to communicate here, Barth has a sharp intellect and he’s more than capable of performing a wry, wise, and often funny analysis of early American history. But he indulges too much in his own sophomoric games and winks too often at the reader. It’s amazing that such a long book could feel so hollow.