Voltaire’s Candide was released four years following the 1744 earthquake in Lisbon Portugal on All Saints Day. Its subtitle, often translated as “Optimism” or “All for the Best”, draws a connection to the idea of philosopher Gotfried Leibniz, which states we live in the best of all possible worlds. This idea becomes a refrain for the titular character. These words provide a comedic commentary of ironic proportion juxtaposed to the tragic events that rapidly accumulate to build the plot. That is how Voltaire used such a subtitle to openly mock how a notion like Leibniz’s could be maintained in a world where war and natural disasters like Lisbon’s earthquake can take innocent lives.
In American Candide, Mahendra Singh updates Voltaire’s classic, putting Candide, Cunegond, Dr. Pangloss and the rest of the cast into the modern world where the mantra of “all for the best” is put into a time where people repeat hashtags and buzzwords. American Candide reminds us that literature doesn’t have to be the kind of high-brow entertainment constructed of emotionally resonate prose that echo through university walls. On the contrary, when the concept of lofty academic ideas comes up, a character remarks, “at least I don’t have an education to confuse me and make me soft in the head like you.”
This example of someone contradicting Candide reminds readers that all Candide can really say are words originally spoken by his teacher, Dr. Pangloss, before he starts to think for himself, “it’s like I’m plumbing the depths of moron.” Using characters filled with witticisms and insults, Mahendra Singh shows how writers can get their points across by tickling the funny bone of their audience instead of pulling on their heartstrings.
Singh writes with the comic sensibility of a humorist, not a dramatist. It was the balance of the original and so once again, it’s tragedy that the characters are constantly experiencing. But this allegory is built around comedy and the tragic events the characters get in to are balanced with absurd humor. Like the original, the allegorical events and cultural criticism keep readers laughing while our main character sees how long he can hold on to his original beliefs while finding himself in situations that are more and more freighting.
Updating many of the original plot points and characters, this time around Candide is a citizen of Freedonia, the “better than best of all possible nations.” It’s this type of change to the original that make American Candide an entertaining allegory of nationalism. Candide is no longer concerned with how we can claim to live in the best of all possible worlds, despite meeting people like the old woman who had half her buttocks removed. Candide is now put into scenarios where he’s forced to see his country through the eyes of people from outside Freedonia.
After seeing how outsiders view Freedonia, he gains a moment of notoriety for his war efforts. Candide stumbles into an interview for cable TV on the Yeah! Network, only to later find his words manipulated to make him sound like an enemy to patriotism. Candide’s personal journey changes to one that questions how better than best Freedonia really is, and the old woman becomes someone who has lost much more for the sake of comedic effect.
It’s the comedic tone that makes American Candide such a good read. Poking fun at everything that the characters encountered was a staple of the original. Now in modern times, Candide and the gang take the gas out of the contemporary political landscape, capitalism, formal education, Hollywood and the news with a sarcastic flare so rich that it’ll probably anger people who just can’t take a joke about why someone would be flattered to be sold for five kilos of cocaine. This actually happens, and it’s funny.
These jokes may be hard to swallow because they’re often one-off quips that move at the same fast-pace that drove the original plot. While it’s easy to call them politically incorrect, it’s this lack of political correctness and sensitivity that make these jokes work. Candide’s ignorance and naïveté function as the set-up and bring him into settings where they turn into jokes when faced against the punch lines of parodied reality. This happens when Candide meets the old woman. After hearing her disastrous life story, he mistakes her history as a victim for sacrifices she’s made on her journey to Freedonia. However, like the original, such misunderstandings result from Candide believing what he was taught, making the joke on him, the idiot that refers to everyone as “dude”. This leaves his chorus of “all for the best” to become synonymous with the absurdities the characters encounter.
American Candidemakes fun of modern culture’s obsession with money and the calamities politics get us into. At the same time, it reminds us that too often US citizens sanction their actions and values with the over repeated attitude of Americans’ “superiority”. After finishing American Candide during the 2016 United States presidential campaign, it’s kind of hard not to see Candide with characteristics of a certain type of American (‘Merican?).
Voltaire’s Candideasks readers to watch a fool in love go on a journey that forced the hero to question what he was raised to believe. Giving that hero a quest full of absurdities, Voltaire used comedy to encourage readers to ask their own questions, abandon theocratic influence that nourished Leibnizian beliefs, and enter the Age of Enlightenment. Transplanting the characters of the past into the world of today, American Candide reminds people they need to continue to ask these questions. “Best of all,” American Candide reminds us that the world hasn’t changed so much since the 1740s, no matter what we keep telling ourselves.
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