Monday, October 19, 2009

Who wants to win the most miserable person contest?

The rapid-fire pace of the action in Voltaire’s Candide is anchored by intermittent existentialist-heavy questions and poignantly human moments.  In a story with an ultimately optimistic message, Voltaire creates incredibly jaded characters to challenge the persistent pluck and rose-colored-glasses outlook of hero Candide.  The philosopher Martin—winner of the ‘most miserable soul on this boat’ competition—is a standout among the cynics.  Instead of sticking to safe, new-acquaintance topics of conversation, Martin extends his perspective of bleak social truths to Candide: that the poor inevitably bear bitter resentment toward the rich, human envy poses the most ardent threat to the status quo, and ultimately, “private griefs are still more dreadful than public calamities” (82).  The placement of this sunny sentiment within the narrative is somewhat conspicuous—it occurs just pages after Candide is ‘thrown into a deep melancholy’ after the Dutch magistrate and Mynheer Vanderdendur successfully swindle fifty thousand piastres from him, putting him in an appropriately disillusioned state of mind to mindlessly pour more piastres into the impromptu ‘most miserable person’ contest.  His grief is profound enough for Voltaire to covertly enter the narrative with bold unequivocal statements: “…treatment completed Candide’s despair,” despite it being “true that he had suffered misfortunes a thousand times more grevious” (79).

            The episode is latent with a pretty profound truth: misfortune is easier to swallow when attributed to pure bum luck or broad circumstances.  When it gets personal, it sticks.  The events of a recent memorable morning at Govans Elementary serve as proof of this human truth. I was asked to help three fourth-grade girls—I’ll call them S, Y and T—with a homework assignment.  Easy, I thought, since a glance at the assignment told me that I had fortunately retained knowledge of rounding to the nearest tens, hundreds, and thousands place from my own elementary school days. 

            Oh, how wrong I was. Personal grasp of the material was a highly ineffective gauge of success for that tutoring session.  It soon became clear that the three girls, aside from differing in their respective understandings of the lesson, showed remarkably distinct attitudes toward the task of completing the work.  S was way ahead of the other two in terms of her understanding and kept asking me, politely but persistently, “Is this right?” Y covertly stole glances at S’s work and continued to do so even after I called her out on it by covering S’s paper with my hand.  But T was by far my most challenging tutee.  Frustrated at my unwillingness to devote my attention fully to her and her alone, she quickly quit working on assigned problems and wrote the word “CRY” in her notebook, which she proceeded to thrust in my line of vision, warning me of events to come.  It was unclear whether ‘cry’ that followed was more a result of frustration with the confusing new lesson or simply a cry for attention.  I left her to it for a while, as my own attention was under duress as it was between S and Y.  When I asked T if she’d be interested in returning to the task at hand, she became emotionally distraught about S and Y already being done the assignment.  Y helped me encourage her that these fears were unfounded—in reality, neither S nor Y was completely finished, with Y’s paper noticeably less complete than S’s.  T then did the most heartbreaking thing of all: she began to repeatedly insist that she was “too stupid” to do the work.  My efforts to reassure her that not only was she not stupid, but that I also get frustrated and lose patience when presented with challenging new concepts, did little to revive her spirit.

            If Candide proves one thing, it is that attitude is everything.  By the end, Candide’s experiences have tempered his attitude toward society: he no longer views the world with indiscriminate trust, but he stays removed from the ‘grand question’ of the human condition debated in the final pages.  The adage ‘if you play with fire, you’re going to get burned’ seems to neatly sum up Martin’s final musings about man living “either in the convulsions of misery, or in the lethargy of boredom” (127). The idea is perhaps summed up best in the statement, “There is pleasure in having no pleasure” (111—and again, Martin). Martin’s persistent cynicism seems to take on a clear theme, consistent with his own personally affronted attitude toward the misfortunes that have befallen him in life. Read in light of what the other characters suffer, his woes of losing his comfortable but tedious job, and getting robbed & beaten by his own family seem rather pale in comparison, which Voltaire makes a deliberate point of attention: “It must be acknowledged that the other competitors were at least as wretched as he” (80).  It seems that Voltaire would encourage us readers and the fourth-grade T to enter the fray, knowing full well that getting hurt to some extent is inevitable.  Our best defense against the lingering sting of “private griefs” is an acknowledgment that the world does not revolve around us personally.  With this in mind, we may, like Candide, foster a clear world-view unclouded by blind optimism or self-pitying pessimism.

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