I have to confess that my first introduction to “Candide” was, like many things are in my life, through music. I played the overture to Bernstein’s “Candide” before I knew it was a book (though not before I knew who Voltaire was, in my defense). So after multiple viewings of the overture on YouTube and a few of poor Cunegonde’s struggle in Paris as she is “forced to glitter and be gay,” I finally moved from a fun piece of music to a fun piece of literature.
One aspect of all the misfortune that befalls every single character that is important is just that—no one is safe, and every person Candide encounters has a story of losing limbs, witnessing murder, etc. It’s just as the “old woman” says to them on their ship from Spain to America, “ask each passenger to tell you his story, and if you find a single one who hasn’t often cursed his life, who hasn’t often told himself that he was the most miserable man in the world, you can throw me overboard head first.” Though many of the characters often remind me of gloomy adolescents enjoying their suffering, the suffering isn’t without reason, and no character is naïve enough to believe that he/she is the only one suffering.
Though Voltaire’s “Candide” is filled with heavy criticism of every aspect of European and American life, it does have a fairly satisfying ending not completely plagued by disaster. Voltaire seems to take the Aristotelian view that man is happiest when he is succeeding at doing something. For the most part, Candide himself is an extremely passive character, more reacting to what happens to him and following the suggestions of others than doing anything of his own accord. Picking up Cunegonde’s handkerchief was perhaps one of the last things he did without prodding from someone else. He maintains throughout his whole life that this is the best of all possible worlds, even after remarks to the pessimistic Martin such as, “How right you are, my dear Martin! Life is nothing but illusions and calamities!”
The ending, for me, reminded me of my grandfather. “Man was not born to be idle.” My “Papi” (who is not my father, but I call him that because as a child I didn’t understand the concept of different relationships, so I called him what my mother called him), is eighty-seven years old, and probably my hero. He was a carpenter by profession and a self-taught but extremely talented guitarist. My earliest memories include him next to my grandmother, singing me a song on my birthday. He spends his time doing one of three things: building, playing, sleeping. Literally. Most of his time is spent either at my piano or sitting with a guitar in his lap, usually with no music in front of him, playing my favorite things to listen to. His dedication astounds me. Long after I’ve grown bored of staring at music at the piano, my grandfather plunks out notes and chords on a whim, attempting to explain to me in broken English what he’s doing. As a teenager, I was a brat about this and rolled my eyes whenever he’d try to teach me how the play the guitar (still not sure why he thought bossa nova was a good starting place for a beginner, though), but now I really enjoy that time spent with him.
One day I asked my mom what I could do to make my grandpa happier, since he seemed to be so bored around the house. She said just being with me and an instrument or a CD makes him happy. I guess that’s what, for him, “keeps [him] free of three great evils: boredom, vice, and poverty,” and it’s something that everyone has to find for him or herself.
And if you’re interested… here’s a song by my grandparents :)
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