CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Let Us Listen to Brother Voltaire

Reading the news reports about the Indian Ocean tsunami, the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and now again with the terrible earthquake in Kashmir, it's hard to know what to say. Why do hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes happen? Why did this earthquake have to occur just at the moment when so many children would be in schools in India and Pakistan? Perhaps in these circumstances the only thing one can do is try to help people, and then for personal consolation turn to what artists, musicians, and writers have left us. Something similar inspired Voltaire (see Adam Gopnik's article in The New Yorker, March 7, 2005) to write his classic novelette -- and, perhaps, disguised autobiography -- Candide, ou l'Optimisme (in English, Candide), and I think this may be a good time to read that book again.

J. P. Le Bas, Praça da Patriarcal après le tremblement de terre de 1755, in Recueil des plus belles ruines de Lisbonne, Paris, 1757On November 1, 1755 -- All Saints Day -- a devastating earthquake struck the Portuguese city of Lisbon. Most of the city was instantly reduced to rubble, the harbor and the Tagus River flooded the lower parts of the city, fires burned out of control, and some 30,000 people were killed. Having learned the news later that month, a deeply affected Voltaire wrote a letter to his friend M. Tronchin in Lyon from his home at Les Délices. At the time, Lisbon was a central location for the Inquisition, and religious persecution -- the sins that people of faith commit against their fellow humans out of a misguided devotion -- was one of the things Voltaire hated the most:

What a game of chance human life is! What will the preachers say -- especially if the Palace of the Inquisition is left standing! I flatter myself that those reverend fathers, the Inquisitors, will have been crushed just like other people. That ought to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike.
In the next several months, Voltaire wrote his Poème sur le Dèsastre de Lisbonne et sur La Loi Naturelle (in English, Poem on the Lisbon Disaster and on Natural Law), which begins:
O unfortunate mortels! O deplorable earth!
O frightening assembly of all mortals!
Eternal suffering of useless suffering!
Mistaken philosophers who cry, "All is well,"
Come quickly to contemplate these terrible ruins,
This debris, these scraps, these woeful ashes,
These women, these children, piled on top of one another,
These scattered body parts beneath the marble.
Ultimately, Lisbon was still very much on Voltaire's mind in his savage attack on the optimism of Leibniz in Candide (1759). One of the many disasters that strike poor Candide and his friends is an earthquake in Lisbon, in Chapter 5:
Scarcely had they ceased to lament the loss of their benefactor and set foot in the city, when they perceived that the earth trembled under their feet, and the sea, swelling and foaming in the harbor, was dashing in pieces the vessels that were riding at anchor. Large sheets of flames and cinders covered the streets and public places; the houses tottered, and were tumbled topsy-turvy even to their foundations, which were themselves destroyed, and thirty thousand inhabitants of both sexes, young and old, were buried beneath the ruins. [...]

In the meantime, Candide, who had been wounded by some pieces of stone that fell from the houses, lay stretched in the street, almost covered with rubbish.

"For God's sake," said he to Pangloss, "get me a little wine and oil! I am dying."

"This concussion of the earth is no new thing," said Pangloss, "the city of Lima in South America experienced the same last year; the same cause, the same effects; there is certainly a train of sulphur all the way underground from Lima to Lisbon."

"Nothing is more probable," said Candide; "but for the love of God a little oil and wine."

"Probable!" replied the philosopher, "I maintain that the thing is demonstrable." Candide fainted away, and Pangloss fetched him some water from a neighboring spring.
Expounding his ridiculous thoughts on how the earthquake was ultimately for the best, Pangloss meets someone associated with the Inquisition, which is how Voltaire ultimately gets to make real what he had imagined in his letter. In the beginning of Chapter 6, he relates the plan of the wise powers of the Inquisition:
After the earthquake, which had destroyed three-fourths of the city of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to preserve the kingdom from utter ruin than to entertain the people with an auto-da-fe, it having been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible preventive of earthquakes.
For taking issue with the idea of original sin, Pangloss and, by association, Candide are taken prisoner, dressed in penitential habits and hats, and tortured with other prisoners in the auto-da-fe.
The mitre and sanbenito worn by Candide were painted with flames reversed and with devils that had neither tails nor claws; but Dr. Pangloss's devils had both tails and claws, and his flames were upright. In these habits they marched in procession, and heard a very pathetic sermon, which was followed by an anthem, accompanied by bagpipes. Candide was flogged to some tune, while the anthem was being sung; the Biscayan and the two men who would not eat bacon were burned, and Pangloss was hanged, which is not a common custom at these solemnities. The same day there was another earthquake, which made most dreadful havoc.
That is how Voltaire turns a terrible disaster into a lesson about tolerance. There are reasons why these disasters happen, but it is absurd to see them as a punishment. If we can follow Voltaire's lead, perhaps we should open our eyes to the scandalous distance between rich and poor, in our country and in the world at large. Disasters strike everywhere and everyone, and that should remind us that we all need to stick together on this miserable, dangerous planet. As a parent, I cannot bear to hear the stories about children in these disasters -- the father unable to hold on to his two-year-old son's hand in the flood waters, the school crushed to pieces on top of its students -- there is just nothing to say in the face of those tragedies. However, a change in our national and international policies might be in order.


Mark Barry said...

Amen to that.

Princess Alpenrose said...

The first change would be to prohibit a president from arm twisting a weak-minded governor into sending her National Guard to a foreign country to protect THEIR capitol city.

The sadness and anger are so interwoven...