By chance, I stumbled upon a notice for a talk about Voltaire’s Candide, that was part of this series. Since it’s one of my favorite books (I buy a copy whenever I see it) I decided to risk an immersion, however brief, into the world of literary academe, to which I said goodbye so many years ago. I can say right off that I learned something important – the speaker also curated this exhibit which I will certainly visit now that I know of it!
The talk was about the processes by which a work of literature becomes part of the canon, the received wisdom of cultural propriety as Flaubert might have said. The speaker was particularly interested in how a work, especially a successful one, gets entangled in the web of prefaces, afterwords, copies, satires, imitations, rip-offs, corrupt versions, “bad readings,” and just how THE WORK gets pulled out of all this onto the hallowed shelf of really Great Books. Rather arcane, but who knew that Candide had so many spurious sequels? And what could be more fun than reading, as she said, the “18th century pseudo-philosophy” in these various texts? I’m sure they are not available in translation, so I’ll pass on that one.
By coincidence, I just got my copy, used of course, of one of the later paperback editions of Candide, the Penguin Deluxe Edition, that has a cover drawn by Chris Ware of comic book glory. In keeping with the theme of re-productions, translations, transpositions, and such, this edition has a condensed version of the entire story, in comic book form, on the front and back covers – is this a first? Two books for the price of one? A book within a book? Can you judge this one by it’s cover? Will the real Candide please stand up!
Of course, these days, a work has only to be produced to become something else, perhaps its opposite. Movies become “books,” become comics, pop songs, and the other way ’round. Old books turned into old movies are remade, the books republished with the movie stars on the cover – an endless merry go ’round of meaning and farrago of nonsense. Think of Planet of the Apes and The Bridge on the River Kwai, (discussed here) two blockbuster movies adapted from texts by one man, that somehow got their logic inverted.
Candide is, at bottom, a cry of anguish by an intellectual enraged that the world doesn’t accord with his notions of justice – compassion is not much in evidence – but its redemption is its exuberant hilarity. In the end, I think it was Rousseau (did he have a sense of humor?) who was closer to understanding mankind’s place in the universe – see his exchange of letters (and here) with Voltaire on the Lisbon earthquake/tsunami.