Archive for October, 2018

Susan Engel as the aged and unappealing Cunegonde (a sort of old lady 2) at the close of a Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Candide (2013), favorably reviewed by Paul Taylor (“astringent, nihilistic, dry”)

Christa Ludwig as the old lady (Barbican, 1989, conducted by Bernstein) —

Friends and readers,

As you probably know (since I’ve announced this more than once), I’m teaching a course I called The Enlightenment: At Risk at the OLLI at AU. The first 18th century author and book we read has been Voltaire’s Candide; ou, l’optimisme. And I assigned selections of his treatises, we saw clips from La Nuit de Varennes (which they appeared to enjoy), and this coming Monday I shall show two clips from a 1989 concert performance of Bernstein’s Candide at the Barbican (Bernstein conducting), and one from a 2004 concert performance at Lincoln Center (Marin Alsop conducting, directed by Lonny Price). What is most striking to me is how many of the people, maybe most in the room came up with interpretations and reactions to Voltaire’s Candide that resemble Bernstein’s comic take on Candide, far more hopeful, morally didactic, essentially preferring a positive point of view on life to Voltaire’s mordancy and presentation of the chaos of experience, senselessness of pain.

1778, 1787 illustration emphasizes the grimness in the adventure

To begin with Voltaire’s Candide, a number of people in the class suggested the famous ending of the tale (“Il faut cultiver notre jardin”) is its finally restorative moral. Some saw redemption, hope here and there, some religious apprehension. I took the view of J.J. Weightman (a critic in the Norton edition) that tale is absurd and mordant, and that Voltaire produced Candide when his awareness of evil was at its most violent and his vitality at its strongest. I also felt with Wolper that the famous gnomic statement at the end is ironic.

In “The Gull in the Garden,” Eighteenth Century Studies, Wolper argues that Candide is a blind gull to the end. How could Candide forget he was once thrown out, and afterwards an army came and destroyed, beat and killed just about everyone in his home estate. In “Il fault cultiver son jardin,” Candide has only learned to shrink into himself. Yes, work can be a form of salvation: Voltaire himself only when near death tried to stop trying to help people. Diderot is continually trying to help people — individually, though in Diderot’s case they are not crazed events so he ends up with small people bothering him. Camille shuts out the rest of the world — as if one could. He can’t stand the sight of Cunegonde because she’s no longer young and pretty. Martin’s words at the end of the previous paragraph are as close as we get to Voltaire but Voltaire is far far more mordant. All his experiences should have taught Candide that he is not safe anywhere, and he is utterly selfish and narrow in the meaninglessness of what patterns we can discern: “Travaillons sans raisonner, dit Martin; c’est le seul moyen de rendre le vie supportable.”

Recent illustration — that’s the Cunegonde hanging up the laundry, the old lady with the sails

One man strongly objected to all Wolper said! There are other readings by critics in the Norton (Richard Holmes, Adam Gopnik) and I assigned one of them (Weightman), and did go over the text and tried to show its continual apprehension of stupidity and evil everywhere. I read aloud incidents, the history of herself the “old woman” told, and they so many were powerful individually considered: women living lives of sex slaves, raped continually, worked to exhaustion, thrown out in old age; the barbaric punishments, frantic slaughters, the making individuals into examples ludicrously killing “pour encourager les autres”.

But when I told the usual definition (a conte is a story shaped by a strong central point) and reiterated the tirelessly reiterated lesson it is not all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, a couple of people appeared to find this not very exciting, and the flatness of the characters was stale. When I went about to say why this obsession —

Leibnitz, deism, Pope in his Essay on Man (“whatever is, is right.”) — unless we look about us and accurately say what is, we cannot improve it. We must not rest easy in what is; we must not look to an afterlife; it’s here and now. Panglos, he glosses over everything —

they were (as living in a different age) indifferent to this cliché. People did say they had taken 18h century courses where Johnson’s Rasselas was read alongside Voltaire’s Candide as similar. Yes, yes, said I and so too Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield. With Rasselas, it’s the hunger of the imagination after some fantastical happiness (“vanity of human wishes”), the importance of one’s “choice of life. But this led to intelligent explications of why a moderate hope is needed: to believe in useful activity and within limits doing good. That it is a mock on the picaresque romance came up: the opening recalls Tom Jones — so a couple of the people in the room suddenly said how hard it is to remember details, its seeming hundreds of stories (I got in “enough piled into every paragraph for a commonly written realistic long novel were the characters psychologically developed at all”).

This 18th century illustration makes the opening incident resemble Tom Jones or other contemporary sentimental erotic novels

On the whole though I felt people were a bit disappointed by Voltaire’s Candide — they asked me about my title of the course: The Enlightenment: at Risk? what was at risk in this world that was valuable? I had used Outram’s book to try to show the ideas of this movement went much much further than small coteries, spread everywhere in cities, country houses, and were themselves outgrowths of new economic and social circumstances and began in the early modern period. So I went back to that and then tried to explain how satire, hard satire was the mode of this progressive period and the kinds of fundamental attacks on humanity Candide can prompt were not possible before people questioned religious belief as such, monarchy and divine right as such; conversely on powerful men, before people began to feel they had a right themselves to liberty, a good life, secure ownership of their property.

But that hardly can make someone like a book. So I then admitted that this summer rereading or reading for the first time some of Voltaire’s work I was more impressed by Letters on England than Candide, and famous and popularly read or widely distributed as Candide is, think Letters on England more important, his Treatise on Toleration teach us more directly about the Enlightenment thought of the era. I had assigned excerpts from these and then they took notes:

Differing sects of religion keep people from becoming absolutist and makes for toleration. In his chapter on Locke he argue against the immortality of the soul. Locke saw we were born with our minds a tabula rasa; what Voltaire is impressed is Locke accepts that matter thinks. Animals are like us, not simple machines but perceiving and sensitive. In the chapter on Bacon he extols basing oneself on probable experience, and takes over from his chapter on the history of inoculation for small pox, a scientific method. In the chapter on Newton he substitutes the old cosmology of God, eternal heaven, sin and reward with a modern scientific Newtonian universe. No need for all sorts of silly inventions and concepts once you have come up with the concept of gravity and turn it into mathematics and see that these mathematics describe what’s happening accurately, and enable to predict. Things like vortices perihelia. He shows how we now measure. Why the universe sticks together – it’s the brute reality – we would call it a force. How weight works. Newton’s Optics fascinated 18th century people –- to through a prism that light divides into colors. I read some poetry by Pope and Thomson: if you look at Shakespeare and Jacobean poetry you find mostly simple color words – red, pink maybe orange, purple; in these 18th century verses the color words just explode into cascades of shades. Far from attacking Shakespeare he admires him and says it’s impossible to translate him (18) and 23 and 24 he admires and recommends how the English support their men of letters (humanities) and men of science by academies. And so on.

I don’t say they weren’t spot on. First, none of the English translations we had came near Voltaire’s concision, wit, and tones.  Then to be honest, I prefer a realistic psychological story and enjoy Voltaire’s letters to Madame Du Deffand, and much more Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love and Ian Davidson’s Voltaire In Exile where we see him fighting barbaric injustices, and occasionally winning (as against the oligarchy of Geneva he opened a manufacturing factory where people came to work and live more freely). I shall tell about these letters and books next week. . Maybe there is “more” to learn from Lettres Philosophiques (and also La Nuit de Varennes last week)

As a test case on whether the general class view of Candide makes it speak home to us, I found I was irritated by the Lincoln Center 2004 production, thought it mostly a travesty of Voltaire. It’s accurately reviewed by Peter G Davis, with whom I disagree only in that I found the usually appealing Patti Lupone as tasteless as everyone else. The witless sexual gags where the women were supposed to enjoy being raped were the worst. I am very troubled by how sexist this (and other) productions are. To me Voltaire’s females do not enjoy being sex slaves at all. I think Anthony Tommasini) has it right when he says this farrago doesn’t know what to do with Voltaire’s work — they were Hollywood bumpkins, clowns:

Paul Groves, Kristin Chenoweth, Patti Lupone as Candide, Cunegonde and the old lady ….

The best song was the penultimate sharp gaiety of the ensemble “What’s the use.” Still, Voltaire did not mean us to shrug and be gay over life’s meaninglessness. But people in the class said they had seen and they appeared to have been entertained by this production. I was lent my copy by one of the people in the class who wanted me to show it to the class and I will show one clip, “What’s the us?.”

The second DVD I have I bought myself, and I sat through far more patiently. It is the Barbican 1989 production.  Jerry Hadley as Candide sang the lyrical melancholy of Candide (in Bernstein’s “It must be so”) beautifully. Far more of Voltaire’s story survived in the enclosed whole script (!), and the absurdity of the enjoyment of torture and death at Lisbon (“auto-da-fe … What a day!”) seemed to approach a little Voltaire. Yet I remained uninvolved and felt the actors (Adolphe Green reading away so very hard)

and singers were flailing at perceptions that failed to touch them except as generic archetypes.

Jerry Hadley as Candide and June Anderson as Cunegonde

It was nowhere wild enough, but the reviews of this “labored over” production were more charitable and patient for the sake of the music. I can see it’s respected because my DVD came with the full script and credits to Lilian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche, Bernstein himself — all credited. I learnt that the original script was wholly by Hellman and that it was much closer in spirit to Voltaire, among other things, satirizing the House UnAmerican Activities committee. Indeed the script did reflect Voltaire in the narrative lines — read aloud as best the performers could, complete with explanations (“what is a picaresque tale? well …. “)

Each of the three productions I’ve mentioned here (the third at the opening of this blog, which I found on-line) have different dialogues so there has been a great deal of free improvisation allowed. It is true it is a mix-mash of different genre types as may be seen in the different earlier illustrations. But what went wrong in the 20th century and is still a problem is candor — reminding me in sound of the name, Candide. In the 18th century a “candid” interpretation was one which tried to present things in the “best” and most moral or sympathetic light. You wouldn’t think we’d want to look away if you turned on recent cable TV movies with their wild violence and amoral sex. Still the history of the adaptation says the first production (1957) was a flop (73 performances), and reveals since then the people daring to mount it have for the most part struggled, almost in vain to come near it. Apparently the 2013 began to come close, as has a recent 2016 operatic Candide at the New York City Opera.

I do find it telling that in our era of massacres, senseless laws and widespread injustice, where the president of the US can go around ridiculing a woman who comes forward to tell a story of assault, rape and humiliation as her civic duty (she knew she had lot to lose personally) rather than have a conscienceless raving elite thug on the supreme court for life, we have a hard time presenting the true core of Candide to an audience. The first edition (1759) was presented as a translation from the German by a physician named Ralph.


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My essay on Anthony Trollope now titled “”On Inventing a New Country: Trollope’s Depiction of Settler Colonialism,” has at long last been published in Antipodes.

It was in 2015 that I attended the Trollope conference in Leuven and talked through an earlier version of this essay. At one time I put this earlier version on academia.edu, but in order to have it published conventionally I took off this previous version so paradoxically the essay is now less available to a larger readership than it once was. Still it is out there again. And I did summarize it among the four blog reports I wrote on this conference and put on this blog: it was one of those given on the panel called The Australian Trollope.


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