Sunday, October 18, 2009

What does it matter?

At the end of every chapter of Voltaire’s Candide, Candide speculates on the answers to philosophical questions. Pangloss, who first suggests to Candide that this is the “best of all possible worlds,” (pg. 1) creates the need for an answer to questions that may not have an ultimate answer. One of the first times Candide witnesses atrocities that might challenge Pangloss’ optimistic claim, he describes war as “heroic butchery” (pg. 5). “Heroic butchery” acts as an oxymoron that makes Candide question not only a cause and effect relationship, but a “sufficient reason” that would merit “heroic butchery” in the “best of all possible worlds”. Candide does not find such a “reason” and so he flees the military only to encounter more suffering.

Candide, in his escape from the war, reconnects with Pangloss, who claims that he is dying from an infection derived directly from Columbus, but steadfastly holds onto his hope and optimism, saying,

It was a thing unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds; for if Columbus had not in an island of America caught the disease, which contaminates the source of life, frequently even hinders generation, and which is evidently opposed to the great end of nature, we should have neither chocolate not cochineal. (pg. 8)

Pangloss explains that a disease that “contaminates the source of life”, “hinders generation”, and resists “the great end of nature” is acceptable, even “necessary” so that the world might have “chocolate”. Such an absurd comparison emphasizes not only the ridiculousness of Pangloss’ theory, but also the ridiculousness of the human desire for an ultimate answer about the nature of the world. Voltaire even goes so far as to suggest that attempting to answer the questions Candide spends his life trying to answer are a waste of time. James is the first person to present another theory for Candide to consider; opposed to Pangloss, James concludes that “mankind have a little corrupted nature…God has given them neither cannon of four-and-twenty pounders, nor bayonets; and yet, they have made cannon and bayonets to destroy one another” (pg. 9). The idea that “nature” has descended into “corruption” from its state of innate goodness is one that Candide will come back to as he questions the suffering of those he meets. On the other hand, when Candide encounters goodness, kindness and pure luck, he restores his hope in Pangloss’ ideal, rejecting James’ pessimism.

Martin presents yet another point of view for Candide to consider; when Candide asks Martin if “men have always massacred each other as they do to-day” (pg. 55), Martin merely asks Candide if “hawks have always eaten pigeons when they have found them?” (pg. 55) in order to challenge Candide, asking, “if hawks have always had the same character why should you imagine that men have changed theirs?” (pg. 55). Martin, James, and Pangloss create a spectrum of philosophical ideas, ranging from the most optimistic idealism, represented by Pangloss to the most pessimistic hopelessness, represented by Martin. Voltaire, by exploring Candide’s grapple with each point of view does not calue one over another, but highlights the wastefulness of asking such questions and the human nature of needing answers. Finally, Candide comes to the conclusion that they “must cultivate [their] garden” (pg. 87). Calling to mind the “Garden of Eden” (pg. 87), Pangloss agrees that, “man was not born to be idle” (pg. 87). In putting to rest their “disputes” (pg. 87), the characters are able to recreate the “Edenic” world they wish for. It is not in discovering the nature of the world in which goodness lies, but the creation of good through man’s free will.

I thought that Voltaire’s depiction of Candide was shockingly accurate as a satire because people really do walk through life looking for answers to questions. First of all, the answers may not even exist, but even if they do, what will knowing them really accomplish? What does it matter if the nature of the world is good, bad, or somewhere in between? Lately, I have been looking back at the last three years, marveling at how much I have changed since I entered college. At eighteen, I really did think I had everything figured out; I thought I knew what I wanted to do, what I believed in, my opinions on everything, and who I was. The idea of uncertainty sent me into a panic, but why? Where do we learn that answers are more important than questions? In class each week, we talk about the questions that each work brings up and how much we love facing those tough questions, how much they help us learn about ourselves and how much they motivate us to learn more and respond accordingly. Answers don’t motivate, they even can end a line of thought that might otherwise be continued.

Last night, my sister, brother-in-law and I sat in their living room and watched The History Channel special, “JFK: Three Shots that Changed America”. For hours on end we were not only mesmerized by this television show, but we wikipedia’ed JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, JFK Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. AND we watched the Zapruder film of the assassination repeatedly (even in slow motion). We discussed our opinions on the controversy to the point that my sister and I were creeped out to go to bed. We had to watch a couple episodes of “Say Yes to the Dress” on TLC before we could calm down and get to sleep. Why were we so addicted to the truth of JFK’s assassination; what consequence does this have in either of our lives? I was not even born for 25 years after Kennedy died. It was a complete waste of all of our time and energy, but we wanted to know! Who killed Kennedy? Was it a conspiracy or did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Who delivered the fatal shot? Where was it fired from: the book depository or the grassy knoll?

On one hand, I wish I did not care about answers that have absolutely no effect whatsoever on my life, but at the same time is it okay to explore curiosities? At what point am I wasting my time?

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