Tag Archives: Candide

“She and Candide were destined to be together in both their eyes.”

My student is referring here to Cunégonde, the lovely aristocratic inamorata of the eponymous character in Voltaire’s extraordinary satire Candide. They carom around the globe like balls on a warped billiards table, meeting, glancing off each other, spinning away, colliding…. Their adventures are bizarre and darkly hilarious; and, yes, through it all, Candide longs for Cunégonde and Cunégonde knows she loves Candide.

In Candide’s eyes—”eyes” in the sense of “view,” or “belief,” or “opinion”—Cunégonde is his destiny. In Cunégonde’s eyes—again, “eyes” in the sense of “view” etc.—Candide is her destiny.

So what’s so wrong with my student’s sentence?

First of all we have an unfortunately placed adverbial prepositional phrase. Moved to the beginning of the sentence, “in both their eyes” would more clearly modify the sentence as a whole via its verb “were destined”: in their opinions, they were destined to be together. At the end of the sentence, though, the phrase can seem to be answering “where?” about “be together,” just as “in Peoria” would work in the sentence “She and Harold were destined to be together in Peoria.” They are destined to be together in their eyes. If such a thing is possible. Eeuuw.

And then we have that unlikely but very real student-writing Waterloo, “both.” Students stick it in all sorts of places in all sorts of sentences, trying to signify a unanimity of purpose, feeling, experience, or what-have-you. Most often they wind up suggesting collaboration or conjunction where there is none and never was any. I could give examples here, but the examples I have are interesting in their own right and deserve separate treatment. Something to look forward to!

Meanwhile, the fact that most eyes come in sets of two adds further confusion to the phrase “in both their eyes.” Do they have only two together, as the Fates shared but one when they wanted to see the future? In Candide, two one-eyed lovers would be no more surprising than the Old Woman With One Buttock. Voltaire may have missed a really good idea there….

Les yeux (tous les deux) de Voltaire

“Making fun of the Baroness’s weight is a bit dark…”

This student is referring to the Baroness in Voltaire’s grotesque satiric novel Candide. Here’s pretty much all Voltaire does to “make fun of the Baroness’s weight”: “My Lady Baroness, who weighed three hundred and fifty pounds, consequently was a person of no small consideration.” (When the Bulgarian army comes to the castle they split Cunégonde, Candide’s lady love, and then repeatedly ravish her; her mother, the Baroness, they “cut…in pieces.” When Cunégonde reappears in the story—not all accidents, she assures Candide, prove fatal—she confirms her mother’s death. Although many presumed-dead characters continue to reappear, the Baroness is gone from the story. Cunégonde later refers to herself as “born a Baroness,” but her weight is not in question.)

So my student is wrong: Voltaire is not really “making fun of the Baroness’s weight”: he is making fun of the weightiness of the nobility, and probably also of the general avoirdupois of German burghers, in that the “most noble Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh” lives in Westphalia. The fatter they were, the more important they were, generally speaking, and Voltaire mocks the automatic respect consequently afforded the hefty.

But my student explains away her implied criticism of Voltaire:

“Making fun of the Baroness’s weight is a bit dark, but because it was written in humor it is funny.”

I believe (but do not know) that my student meant that in the context of Voltaire’s satiric purpose and tone, a remark that would otherwise be far from comical, or even tasteful, elicits laughter. I probably talked a bit about the black comedy, or “dark humor,” of the twentieth century when introducing this eighteenth-century work—I usually do. If that is what she was trying to say, she was right to try to say it.

But of course she didn’t say it. Instead, she gave us a comment not far from Nixon’s explanation that if the President of the U.S. does a thing it is by definition legal. My student is saying that if  Voltaire writes something dark “in humor,” it “is funny,” as a matter of course.

I once had a colleague who made remarks that were startlingly rude—”God, you’re a slob, aren’t you?” she said to a friend who, pausing with his spoon halfway to his mouth in order to finish a comment about department politics, had just dripped some soup onto his tie at lunch—and then evidently believed she made it all all right by following up with “Only kidding.” She, too, must have thought that anything said or “written in humor” was funny, regardless of what it was. Yes, she was a barrel of laughs.

And speaking of department politics: I’m going to be tied up for the next several days getting ready for and then participating in the American Association of University Professors’ Annual Meeting in D.C. I own neither a laptop nor an iPhone, so unless someone wants to lend me a computer for an hour or two I will probably not be able to maintain my blog until maybe Sunday. Please go back and read some of the posts from August and September of 2011 in the interim—I led with some of my most hilarious horrors, all of which, I hasten to say, were not “written in humor” but are very funny just the same.

“We must ask why unfortunate people do not kill themselves more.”

This is only an infelicitous phrasing of the question the Old Woman With One Buttock (daughter of Pope Urban X and the Princess of Palestrina) asks in Voltaire’s Candide. The victim of a string of catastrophes that are bizarre and extreme even in the context of this pretty bizarre novel, she says she has heard many people lament their sufferings and say they would be better off dead, but she notes that almost none of those people, including herself, actually kill themselves. She concludes that people love life too much to leave it, even when it seems awful. (At the end of the novel we find her concerned only that her newly safe and peaceful life not be boring.)

My student was writing about this old woman and the question she addresses when recounting the story of her life: subjected to such suffering, why go on? His phrasing, though, makes her question sound more like a suggestion for addressing the rising costs of health care.

I like the placement of “more”: my student should have put it before “unfortunate”—” why more unfortunate people do not kill themselves.” Maybe he was concerned that the reader would wonder whether he meant “more people who are unfortunate” or “people who are more unfortunate than others,” and with the picky instructor who he knew was his reader, maybe he would have been right to worry. Or he might have added “often” to the end of the sentence, to say “why unfortunate people do not kill themselves more often.” But the same picky reader might have commented in the margin, “MORE often? Isn’t once enough?” or “Do they only kill themselves slightly now?” (No, she wouldn’t have made either of those comments; but she might have thought of them, I admit. After all, I just did.) To satisfy me, he would have had to take a little more time and a little more thought: “why so few people who consider themselves unfortunate actually kill themselves,” perhaps.

Or he could have quoted directly from the text, where the meaning is unambiguous partly because it is distributed over several sentences.

I also would have appreciated his attributing the question itself to the old woman: “Why, she asks, do not more of the unfortunate kill themselves?” As he has written it, he himself is urging us to ask this question; and it isn’t a question I have ever before felt compelled to ask, or answer. I have never looked around and thought to myself, “Whine, whine, whine. Why don’t they just kill themselves?” or “Look at all these suffering people! Why don’t they just end it all?” That kind of thinking leads to the notion of “Death Panels”—boards of people judging the unfortunate: “Oh, SHE’s so unfortunate she should kill herself.” (There is NO SUCH THING as a “death panel” in the Affordable Care Act, but there are evidently a lot of people who dread being subjected to one to the point that they could be terrorized into hating the legislation for its imaginary sake anyway…)

Luckily, the old woman is right. Most of us love life too much to leave it over a bit of misery. I was having a good old inter-colleague grouse the other day on the subject of student papers: “Couldn’t you just slit your throat?” he asked, and I replied “Every day.” But neither of us did; and neither of us would.

I wish my readers all good fortune; but if you sometimes feel, or are, unfortunate, do take the old woman’s advice: Love life. Fear only boredom—which sometimes may also feel like an instrument of death (“This boredom is killing me!” “He bored me to death!”) but is not one that people generally turn on themselves.

I feel pretty safe: teaching writing may be exhausting sometimes, frustrating often—but it is never, ever, boring.