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All Possible Worlds, Biblio File, NYPL Labs
Candide 2.0: A Reading Experiment Begins
For the next ten weeks, the New York Public Library will host a public, interactive reading of Candide, in connection to its ongoing exhibition at 42nd St.. This edition will look familiar to readers who remember the story, or even just its famous lines about “the best of all possible worlds” and “we must cultivate our garden.” But the innovative format, which facilitates reader annotations and discussions in the digital margins, will also yield surprises, as we have taken that closing line and used it as inspiration for a “cultivated” edition, with “seeds” of discussion sown by readers, opening up the text for public participation. We are thus extending the invitation to NYPL readers to add to these annotations: to make our garden grow, to paraphrase Leonard Bernstein.
To begin the annotation-cultivation of Candide, Nicholas Cronk, president of the Voltaire Foundation at Oxford, takes a new look at the opening chapter of the book, noting how what seems like a familiar narrative structure of the story immediately becomes unsettling, as the narrator disappears in the first paragraph (click "text" link at end of quote to jump to this place in the book):
“The narrator leaves us on our own after this brief and apparently pointless appearance. We are not, after all, to be guided through the story; the narrator has let us down by stealing any old plot from Tom Jones; nothing is quite as it seems; and we are on our own, left to make sense of things as best we can…” [text »]
Candide has been expelled from his family castle in Westphalia and has lost his love, Cunegonde. He has some questionable guidance from his tutor, Dr. Pangloss, whose metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology insists on a circular understanding of cause and effect: “the nose is formed for spectacles—thus we have spectacles!” [text »]
Cronk shows how the examples Pangloss uses to support his philosophy are designed to appeal to the Baron’s small universe in his Westphalia castle:
“The argument from design is meant to prove the existence of God: here it only proves the existence of German barons.”
The narrative perspective—through Candide’s eyes— shows both the limitations of the naïve hero’s experience and the universality/banality of the Panglossian system, as Candide describes “this best of all possible worlds, [as] the Baron's castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses” [text »] and Pangloss as “the greatest philosopher of the whole province, and consequently of the whole world.” [text »]
Cronk asks what we are to make of these repeated phrases—“sufficient reason,” “cause and effect,” “best of all possible…” The repetition is humorous, but more than humor is involved. Cronk puts it, “It seems that the more we play with these terms, the more they lead a life of their own.” [text »]
It was a similar sense of how Candide’s philosophical debates and peripatetic travels were adapted and led lives of their own that inspired my own interests as curator of the NYPL Candide at 250: Scandal and Success exhibit in Wachenheim Gallery. I saw a counter-history of the novel in the way that its readers had transformed it, as if its canoncity were reflected in a funhouse mirror: the odder iterations of the story (Esperanto experiments, 1960s countercultural rambles, contemporary human rights campaigns) could be encapsulated in the opening line of the second chapter: “Candide, driven from terrestrial paradise, walked a long while without knowing where…” [text »]
With Candide’s errant wandering as my inspiration, I became interested in the errors that the text has picked up in its 250 years of translation. For example, in some translations, the Bulgars become Bulgarians; the puerile wordplay on Bulgars/buggery (in reference to Frederick the Great) [text »] would have been familiar to some readers, but it did not translate for others who did not consider the context. Most translation differences, of course, should not be seen as errors, as translations have wandered around a (supposed) central or original sense with different emphases, references, overtones, and felicities of language—vagaries of translation that are new sources of life for the text.
For this annotation project, we have used a public domain translation available in digital form. If it is not the best of all possible translations, it nevertheless facilitates what could be the best of all possible discussions, as the annotating facilities at each paragraph allow interested readers to communicate with others about how translation choices affect reading.
The history of Candide is a history of adaptation for different cultural periods and different philosophical and political arguments. Playwright Stanton Wood has updated the story to the past 10 years of world events in his Candide Americana with Rabbit Hole Ensemble, which showed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2009. In Wood’s retelling, the Seven Years War becomes the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, and Candide witnesses the fall of the World Trade Center on September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and other events. In his annotations to chapter 3, Wood reflects on the relevance of eighteenth-century philosophy to considering contemporary events. Wood uses another type of counter-history as his inspiration: Susan Nieman’s Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (2002). [text »]
Wood is also attuned to the strangeness of the story when he notes Candide’s encounter with a miserly preacher who advocates charity: “Incorporating this kind of ironic moment into the natural flow of the action was one of the challenges of adaptation - every moment in the book seems to include an example of someone saying one thing while doing the opposite in a particularly delicious way.” [text »]
Like Cronk, Wood is interested in how the features we expect to see in a novel—here, a genuinely nice character in Jacques the Anabaptist—disappear almost immediately. [text »]
What is the effect of these destabilizing devices in these early chapters: baits and switches, irony, and wandering as novelistic structure? What do they reveal about Voltaire’s work in the conte philosophique, the philosophical tale? How do these devices lend themselves to further adaptation?