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All Possible Worlds, Biblio File

Novelist as Contrarian: James Morrow Reads Voltaire


Note: for those of you just joining us, the following is a digest of the latest round of comments on Candide 2.0, an interactive edition of Voltaire's book mounted in conjunction with the Library's exhibition Candide at 250: Scandal and Success.

James Morrow names his 10th-grade World Literature teacher, James Giordano, as his literary hero. In the reader’s guide notes to his novel, The Last Witchfinder, Morrow describes how “Mr. G” assigned his high school students a challenging syllabus: Kafka’s Trial, Camus’s Stranger, Candide, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and other classics. From these authors and his teacher, he learned to admire the novelist as a contrarian, someone who tested ideas.

He writes of his classroom experiences: “Enduring fiction evidently occupied some indefinable domain where intellect and feeling met and fused, fueling an eternal conversation about the mystery of it all. The most valuable novelists, poets, and playwrights didn’t simply tell stories; they didn’t just solicit our vicarious involvement in imaginary adventures. Fiction writers had something to say. They were on fire with ideas. But the novelist wasn’t essentially a philosopher. The Trial and Madame Bovary got at truth obliquely, subjectively—emotionally.”

Morrow’s annotations for Candide this week show Voltaire as a humane contrarian. As chapter 4 begins, Candide is traveling with his syphilis-ravaged tutor Dr. Pangloss. The tutor rationalizes every event with the refrain that this is the best of all possible worlds, an echo of German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s theodicy. Morrow explains:

***Note: "[text »]" links will take you to the corresponding passage in the Candide 2.0, a networked edition of the book***

“Voltaire and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers saw the flaw in Leibniz’s reasoning. If we can envision a superior world that nevertheless operates by natural laws – a Peruvian Eldorado, say, or a planet on which famine is unthinkable because fruit trees grow everywhere – we have come close to demonstrating that ours is not the best of all possible worlds." [text »]

Gottfried Wilhelm, Freiherr von Leibniz, 1646-1716., Digital ID 1559035, New York Public LibraryGottfried Wilhelm, Freiherr von Leibniz,
1646-1716 (NYPL Digital Gallery)
The riposte to Leibniz, “if this is the best of all possible worlds, what then of the others?” [text »] has become an inspiration for writers, filmmakers, and other artists. Morrow’s science fiction satires are dizzyingly, stunningly well plotted romps through controversial philosophical debates. He recast Mr. G as a gadfly high school teacher in Blameless at Abaddon (1996), about a man who puts God on trial for his indifference to human suffering. The Last Witchfinder (2006) is narrated by Isaac Newton’s Principia—the book itself witnesses how new methods of scientific experiment and explanation circulated in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and America.

The Philosopher’s Apprentice (2008) is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, with nods to John Locke’s tabula rasa, theories of ethics and justice, Darwinian thought, and bioethics. He is working on what he calls a “loopy retelling of Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos” with a female protagonist and says there may be echoes of Candide in the book.

Morrow’s contemporary forms of the conte philosophique reveal some fascinating features of Candide: its retelling of other stories and debates, its pacing and plot twists, and its moments of change. With his attention to how stories are remixed and refashioned, he makes connections between Voltaire’s retelling of the Book of Job and others who have adapted the story. [text »]

Amid the rapid pacing of Candide’s travels, there are also deliberate moments, such as the poignant image of the relief workers moistening the bread with their tears [text »] after the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Voltaire had expressed grief in his Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake (1756): “Lisbon lies in ruins, while in Paris they dance.” That anguish becomes satire when Pangloss uses his reason to explain God’s benevolence in this best of all possible worlds: “If there is a volcano at Lisbon it cannot be elsewhere.” [text »]

The satirist’s art comes not only in presenting ideas but in staging scenes which test them. As Candide refashioned debates about theodicy and justice in the eighteenth century, it is adapted to comment on contemporary debates. Lillian Hellman had the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s and her own blacklisting in mind when she translated Voltaire’s auto-da-fé scene in her original script for Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, Candide. In her telling, the Portuguese tribunal evokes the language of the House of Un-American Activities to explain Morrow turns to Richard Wilbur’s and John La Touche’s lyrics for “It’s a Lovely Day for an Auto-da-Fé” (Hellman’s book was revised in later revivals—Morrow quotes from the 1998 revival recording) to show the auto-da-fé as a set piece about the Lisbon earthquake. [text »]

That emotional debate continues today. Morrow notes that it is “impossible to read Voltaire’s account of the Lisbon earthquake without thinking of the cataclysm that recently devastated the country of Haiti, leaving at least 200,000 dead and one million homeless.” [text »]

Televangelist Pat Robertson interpreted the event as divine retribution for what he explained as a Haitian pact with the Devil. Biologist Richard Dawkins called Robertson out for his comments, offering plate tectonics as an explanation before getting to the meat of his On Faith column in the Washington Post: “The religious mind, however, restlessly seeks human meaning in the blind happenings of nature.”

The other side, or a possible denouement, of these debates is the dramatizing of the changed mind. In Morrow’s The Last Witchfinder, the protagonist, Jennet sets out to use science to explain the world rationally, to disprove her father’s fervor for diagnosing witches in seventeenth-century England. Yet her scientific understanding of the world must adapt as new systems of explanation circulate among natural philosophers who debate Isaac Newton’s theories of motion. These debates about the nature of scientific explanation and philosophical discussions move the narratives forward in Morrow’s work—and in Voltaire’s contes philosophiques and other work.

[The apotheosis of Newton], Digital ID 1618968, New York Public Library'Elémens de la philosophie
de Neuton'
(NYPL Digital Gallery)
NYPL’s 2004 exhibit The Newtonian Moment was a stunning exposition of this historical development. Voltaire played a key role in popularizing Newton for Continental audiences when he composed Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton in 1738. Yet Voltaire was initially skeptical of Newtonian philosophy as it compared to Descartes’ theories of motion that were popular at the time. In the catalog to accompany the exhibit, curator Mordechai Feingold quotes Voltaire’s initial skepticism about Newton from his Lettres philosophiques (1734): “For your Cartesian everything is moved by an impulsion you don’t really understand, for Mr. Newton it is by gravitation, the cause of which is hardly better known. In Paris you see the earth shaped like a melon, in London it is flattened on two sides.”

A moment of literary fantasy: what would a scene look like as Voltaire changed his mind? Voltaire collaborated with his companion, Madame du Châtelet, in composing the Elémens, and he credits her help with assisting him in understanding the system. We have one picture of his changing his mind with his companion’s help in the allegorical frontispiece to the first edition of the Elémens in NYPL’s Rare Book Division. Feingold describes the figures:

“There, attired in a Roman toga, the poet’s laurels resting on his head, books and mathematical instruments all around him, Voltaire sits at his desk composing the Elémens. Directly above him is Newton, regally seated on a throne of clouds, his right hand positioning a compass on a celestial lobe, the index finger of his left hand pointing at the glove. All the while his gaze fixes on Mme du Châtelet—levitating halfway between Newton and Voltaire, thanks to some helpful putti—who returns the gaze. The dynamics of the scene seem to suggest Newton the master impressing an important lesson on his admiring Emilie. More telling still, the oval mirror in du Châtelet’s grip collects the rays of light (truth) emanating, as it were, from the heavens behind Newton—and reflects them onto the inspired Voltaire, busy at work below.”

This scene is, in some ways, reflective of how Morrow described his own encounters with new ideas in his high school classroom: an “indefinable domain where intellect and feeling met and fused, fueling an eternal conversation about the mystery of it all.”

In 2008, John Brockman of asked scientists, philosophers, inventors, professors, and other public figures the following question: what have you changed your mind about? Richard Dawkins responded that he wanted to appropriate ‘flip-flopper’ from its charged political discourse and praise those who would reconsider a scientific question given new evidence. Changing one’s mind is a sign of intellectual flexibility. But there are few fiction-writers among that survey of habitual reconsideration, although novelists must describe adaptation, growth, and reflection for their stories to resonate.

And so we should ask such a question of Candide: are there episodes when the naïve hero changes his mind? Do these characters change their minds, or do they have another purpose in Voltaire’s satire? What sets these scenes in motion? We have noticed scenes of suffering and deprivation; in Morrow’s reading of chapter 6, Pangloss renders any emotional reaction into a pedantic lesson in language games. [text »]

When will Candide’s ever-expanding world become a different sort of classroom?

Visit Candide 2.0 »


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