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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Voltaire's Candide and the War on Terror

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It is strange how one sometimes starts to read a novel that was published centuries ago, only to discover the fictional events resonating with immediate events in one's own time, so that each seems mutually to inform upon the other. There is, of course, nothing mysterious about why we might reinterpret a historical novel in the light of present experiences. Even so, when a historical novel seems to speak to our present - as if it somehow anticipated it - this can be unsettling and exciting. As Alan Bennett imagines it in The History Boys, it is as if the hand of someone long dead has reached out, and taken your own.

Such a grip from past to present has been holding me as I have been reading Voltaire's eighteenth-century Candide in the same week as the tenth anniversary of September 11th. The connections I outline below are by no means firm or convincing. Nevertheless, I've been unable to avoid feeling them as I have been reading.

Which is worse, the plague or the earthquake?
Voltaire wrote Candide, or Optimism (1759) at a time of religious and political persecution, during the pan-European Seven Years War. Among other things, Candide offers a critique of the philosophy of Leibniz, which claims that we inhabit the "best of all possible worlds." According to this principle, which Leibniz labelled as optimism, the world has been designed by God, such that any event - no matter how bad it seems to human eyes - must play a positive role in his ultimately benign master-plan. Although the meaning of the word "optimism" has been over-generalised since Leibniz coined it in the eighteenth century, his original principle is today best known through the figure of Dr Pangloss who features in the novel. No matter what befalls him, Pangloss believes that everything must happen for the best.

Dr Pangloss is tutor to Voltaire's hero, Candide, but his disciple finds his belief severely tested, as he lurches from one disaster to another. Candide is evicted from his noble household (and separated from his love, Cunégonde), is enlisted into the army, fights battles, suffers injury, and in his long escape and effort to be reunited with Cunégonde, witnesses injustice, torture, rape, avarice, hypocrisy. Time and again, though, as Candide encounters disaster and begins to think himself unfortunate, he suddenly meets someone whose story seems to be so much worse. Mid-way through the novel, having survived an earthquake and the Inquisition, he is briefly reunited with Cunégonde, who it appears has been serially raped and disembowelled. Lest this surfeit of violence not be enough, an old woman, who has helped Candide and Cunégonde escape, then complains that their horrors are nothing compared to her own. She was, she says, the long-suffering daughter of a Pope, who was captured by pirates on the night of her wedding: from this point on, she "had been exposed to poverty and slavery, had been raped almost daily, had seen her mother torn to pieces, had endured war and famine, and was now dying of the plague in Algiers."

The old woman turns to Cunégonde, who has survived an earthquake, and asks if she has ever suffered the plague. Cunégonde replies that she has not, at which the woman says that "you would have to admit that it is far worse than any earthquake." The old woman's challenge seems to be that which the reader is asked to answer in relation to the novel as a whole: whose character has suffered the most? which is the greatest misadventure? what is the worst form of suffering in this allegedly best of all possible worlds?

The reader might use his detached perspective to try to answer such questions, but as we are dragged along with Candide's adventures, we quickly realise that making such absolute judgements is ridiculous. We are continually invited to judge whose experiences do most to discredit Pangloss's naive optimism. However, just as we think we have reached a conclusion, another thing occurs which changes our frames of reference. We thereby recognise the fallacy of making cool and objective assessments of good and bad, and of trying to weigh individual suffering against the unwitting part it may play in God's plan. Leibniz's interpretation of suffering through the lens of philosophical abstraction does not do justice to how humans perceive their own suffering in the here and now. Just as Candide does not present believable, realistic characters but tortured caricatures, so Leibniz treats humans as divine devices, not individual agents with immediate thoughts and feelings.

Selfish though it may be, in the realm of actual human experience, we can only provide one answer to the old woman's implied question: that which is worse is that which happens one's own self. Whilst I may try to sympathise with the suffering of another, I will ultimately judge my own case as being the worst, because it is happening to me. Much though we admire Candide's perpetual, good-humoured optimism, we see that his Panglossianism fails to do justice to the complexity and horror of his own suffering with which we sympathise. It is only at the close of the novel, when he is reunited with his old tutor, that Candide appeals for the right to selfishly indulge in his own suffering, not to have to perceive it in relation to some bigger scheme that God has ordained. As the characters have finally achieved a comfortable life on a farm (though in a malicious touch, Voltaire has Cunégode become hideously ugly), Pangloss, in his schoolmasterly way, asks Candide if he is now satisfied with the idea of optimism. After all, Pangloss points out, if it had not been for all the previous disasters, he would not be here today. "All events form a chain in this," he says, "the best of all possible worlds." In the novel's famous concluding line, Candide retorts, "That is well said, but we must cultivate our garden." Faced with a complex, bewildering world of violence and terror, all the individual can do is look after number one, and not think about how they fit into a bigger chain of existence.

What, then, can this sort of vision, this tension between the unique sufferings of the self and the surplus sufferings of the world, possibly have to do with the wake of September 11th, and the ongoing War on Terror?

Making any connections between a novel and life runs the risk of equating actual historical suffering with its merely fictional cousin. However, September 11th and the subsequent War on Terror have been visualised and narrated with much the same tempo and tone as the crazy events of Candide. The last ten years have delivered a constellation of multimedia images that have flashed before the eyes too quickly to interpret: airliners above New York and F16s in Iraq; carbombs in Kabul and phone bombs in Madrid; twisted trains in Delhi and torn buses in London; police raids in Birmingham and grief in Wootten Bassett. The acceleration of the violence has been as relentless, and consequently baffling, as that of the novel, which in 100 pages crams in a bewildering array of horrifying events, some natural but most man-made.

It would clearly be unjust to say that the post-September 11th world has the comic quality to it which Voltaire's novel ultimately has, with its excess of violence. Nevertheless, there has been a similar sense of the levelling of disaster in both the comedy of the novel and the history of the real world. In Voltaire, everyone from princes to paupers seems to suffer in ingenious ways that make it hard to evaluate who has suffered more than whom. We barely have time to register one character's fate, before we move on to that of another. The novel has a breathless farce about it. The events of the last ten years seem likewise to be paced not according to the amenable plod of Whiggish history, but by the stream of consciousness of a novel (or movie). Just as in Voltaire, we have not been accorded time or stable frames or reference to evaluate which events have been worse, where the most suffering has been caused. There have been too many, too disparate acts and types of violence. Making fine-tuned evaluations has been a perpetual challenge. There have been uncountable judicial and moral issues to consider in the unsettling first decade of the twenty-first century, which have thrown up questions equivalent to those of the old woman of Voltaire's novel: Which is worse, the plague or the earthquake? Which is worse, September 11th or the War in Iraq? Which is worse, waterboarding a terrorist suspect or being unable to extract information that could save hundreds of civilian lives?

One answer would be that none of these comparative questions matter, so long as these bad events ultimately lead to a better world. In a version of Panglossianism, Neo-Conservatives argue that September 11th was some kind of bifurcation point in history. Democracy was threatened with an existentialist challenge that needed to be confronted. For Leibniz bad things have to happen in order to fulfil some ultimately good plan. For the likes of the authors of the Project for the New American Century, September 11th could be presented in a theological light as a providential opportunity: this was a moment that confronted liberalism with its failures, and that legitimised instead the use of force to assert values, such as democracy, that are allegedly universal and benign.

In the effort to achieve the best of all possible worlds, the world where every country is a democracy, Neo-Conservatives maintained a philosophical abstraction in their view of the War on Terror that circumnavigated individual suffering. They held fast to the conviction that a few would have to suffer in order to prove a democratic ideal. Their language itself embodied this view, the phrases "collateral damage" or "enhanced interrogation techniques" being chilling euphemisms designed to justify civilian casualties or torture. Had he been alive today, Voltaire would no doubt have provided an acerbic satire on words such as these, and their Liebnizian spirit: they try to neutralise the suffering of the individual, in order to situate it as part of a wider and more positive narrative about the advance of democracy.

With this, I seem to be making a classically liberal, relativist argument that opposes conservative absolutism. However, Voltaire's novel is useful because it reminds liberals (yes, including myself) of why the conservative view exists. The Panglossian narrative of the War on Terror - indeed, that very universalising term itself - offers a neat answer to a complex, globalised world where terror takes many different forms and has many different causes. It is tempting to encapsulate all the individual experiences of terror under one umbrella heading, as part of one grand confrontation between ideals that should ultimately conclude with the universal triumph of democracy. Candide acknowledges that this approach to suffering, and this sort of optimism, does at least encourage the self to look forwards, beyond their immediate moment, to imagine a better life beyond. Readers much cherish Candide for his perpetual, cheery hopefulness, which is only enabled by his faith in his Pangloss's view. Indeed, for all that Candide at the end of the novel rejects Pangloss's take on their adventures, the novel's plot does in fact lead the characters to a positive conclusion which seems to validate Pangloss. All events, it turns out, did form a chain in this novel, and the characters' happy life on the farm at the end is financed by the money Candide has gathered through the course of his epic, but tortuous, adventures.


However, when such plotting and chaining is done by a novelist in such a neat way that it seems unrealistic and caricatured, this makes a strong argument for saying that the world cannot be seen this way in actuality. Taken as a whole, Candide seems to warn that for all it may be tempting to gloss the sufferings of the individual in favour of the optimism of an ultimately better world, this is not a sustainable way to live an unpredictable existence.

Voltaire confronts us with violence and suffering taken to an extreme, ridiculous universality. Everyone seems to be suffering in some way in Candide, and in this world it is impossible to judge fairly who is suffering most, or whether there is any explanation for each person's fate. The messy milieu of the War on Terror - the threats to justice and human life, the high-tech warfare and guerilla terrorism - has seemed so chaotic that violence and suffering has become a universal force in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Yet Voltaire reminds us that, when confronted with a surfeit of violence, we can only feasibly think about how this bad world looks for the individual, not try to explain suffering  in terms of a naive, bigger picture (democracy versus terrorism, for example). The old woman's question is absurd and unanswerable. Sticking to large Panglossian ideals leads us to ask the wrong sorts of questions, and to search for answers in abstractions and universals. The only sort of question it is reasonably possible to answer, though, is the more selfish one: how am I suffering, in the here and now?

Thinking like this demands empathy, of the sort we extend to Candide, as we perceive he does not do justice to the horror of his own plight. We need to think about how the world looks from the point of view of the terror suspect detained without trial. Of how it looks from the point of view of the civilian who has lost a loved one in an airstrike. Of a British soldier fighting in the heat of Basra. Of an impoverished Afghan farmer. Of the family of a dead firefighter in New York. All these people are suffering in their own way. The best those of us who are spectators of the War on Terror can do is to adopt a position like that which readers of Candide are required to take. We must acknowledge and understand the legitimacy of each person's claims to suffering, and not try to compare one against the other. Controversial though it may be, the terror suspect who has subsequently been released without charge has suffered, and we have to accept that their suffering may be, for them, worse than that of the victims or families of September 11th.

We must, in other words, sympathise with selfishness. We should not try to ask absolute questions about suffering, such as posed by the old woman, and should not seek to provide ultimate answers, of the sort provided by Leibniz. To conclude that the wrongly-accused terror suspect paid a "price worth paying" as a means to a democratic end is to behave as Pangloss does at the climax of Candide. Unlike the characters in Voltaire's novel, people in the lived moment do not perceive themselves as links in a chain of events towards a definite, optimistic end. To believe that they do can lead one to treat real people like characters in a novelistic plot, to move them at will in order to realise one's master plan. This, ultimately, is what likens the Neo-Conservative view to that of naive Pangloss, the view that we can - if only a few are willing to suffer airstrikes or torture, plagues and earthquakes - realise the best of all possible worlds.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:39 am

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