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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 »]

Bust of Voltaire and original 'Candide' manuscript on display in the Wachenheim Gallery, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (© The New York Public Library, 2010)Bust of Voltaire and original 'Candide' manuscript on display in the Wachenheim Gallery, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (© The New York Public Library, 2010)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?


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comments on commentary

In scrolling around the extraordinary digital portion of the Candide exhibition, I'm amazed at how collaborative and interactive Candide 2.0 could be. However, in scrolling through some of the initial comments by curators and public alike, I am struck by the fact they can only be re-sorted (that is, extricated from the textual portions they offer commentary on), by author. This is, of course, great if I'm wanting to see everything that Alice (for example) has posted, but it is not useful if I'm more interested in seeing how many of the comments focus on specific issues in the text (characterization, contemporary connections, setting, etc.). I wonder, in the spirit of online interactions and their capability to fruitfully destabilize the "authority" of authors, whether the comments section might also be equipped with subject tags? I like the idea of the types of connections and assonances this might reveal between authors. Of course, I'd also like to publically congratulate Alice and everyone else involved on such an extraordinary exhibit. Visiting Candide 2.0 only makes me wish I could see the remainder of the exhibition at the NYPL. I hope those who are closer are able to take advantage of both the virtual and real exhibitions.

a first draft...

Thanks for these marvelous suggestions. I agree it would greatly enhance the experience to be able to sort comments by topic, tag or theme. Putting this toward the top of our list for "things to build in next time"... and we hope/expect there *will* be a next time, with another book, perhaps tied to another exhibition. Debating whether we would want to let readers enter their own tags, or to offer a pre-defined set that one could choose from. I often find that more structure is good, especially for a complex, multi-directional literary discussion. Your comment gestures at what I think is one of the big conceptual problems in communal web-based reading: how to make sense of the conversation. The site we've built is pretty good at gathering comments from readers, but it's only so-so at presenting them. Each thread of conversation must be unpacked from its parent passage in the text.. so it demands that readers be curious enough simply to open boxes for the sake of opening them. There's no way at present to let the comments call out to the reader by sheer force of their erudition and "interestingness." The rudimentary browsing tools (comments by chapter and by commenter) help somewhat. I definitely think a thematic browsing tool along the lines of what you suggest would be a step forward. It's also a design question... how do you present a multi-layered text in a legible, non-overwhelming way? Alice's comment digests (<a href="">latest here</a>) are an effort to bring the conversation to light, but it's a labor-intensive process involving a lot of copy-and-paste quotations and by-hand linking etc. Can we imagine an interface that would allow the community (and editors) to collectively filter the conversation? A framework which would allow themes and patterns to rise naturally to the surface? Crowd-sorted forums like Digg and Slashdot immediately come to mind, but those interfaces, while effective, feel overly technical (and they tend to attract only the power user types)... I want something that does this more elegantly, in a way that marries editorial function with graphical elegance. Only then will this sort of social reading progress from the experimental stage to become something that is truly self-perpetuating... when the effort of reading and commenting generates something that is intellectually and aesthetically rewarding, and thereby renews the desire to keep reading. I always come back to that ancient, and still peerless triumph of layered textual design, the Talmud... - Ben Vershbow, NYPL digital group, producer of <a href="">Candide 2.0</a>


"A public domain translation available in digital form." Whose translation? When and where was it first published? Why not present this remarkable text in its original language?

re: Translation?

We're using the anonymous translation which first appeared in the 1918 Modern Library edition of <em>Candide</em>, and is <a href="">available free online at Project Gutenberg</a>. We suspect it's a slightly updated version of the late 19th century translation by Henry Morley, which is used in the <a href="">Barnes and Noble Classics edition</a> today. Of course, we would have loved to use a more contemporary translation, but for expediency's (and cost's) sake, had to go with a version out of copyright (pre-1923). Furthermore, we needed something readily available in digital form, and Gutenberg's e-text was ripe for the repurposing. It would be great to offer it in French of course, but being a New York institution, we thought it best to go with English. There are a few more notes on translation to be found on the Candide 2.0 <a href="">about page</a>. Thanks for reading! - Ben Vershbow, NYPL digital group, producer of <a href="">Candide 2.0</a>

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